“Rough Wednesday shake the Darling Buds of May.” Or, what does Google Voice do when fed actual poems?

John Carroll C’05 created a website that’s been entertaining us for the last few months. Now we’re sharing it with you: Poetry, by Google Voice.

Here’s how it works: People call a Google Voice phone number and read an actual poem. Google Voice transcribes that reading, mishearing much of it and spitting out what is essentially a brand-new poem. Carroll then posts the new Google Voice-ified version of the poem, along with a link to the original work, on his website.

A Penn English major and former assistant director of development at the Kelly Writers House, Carroll answered a few questions for us via email about his site and the poems it’s produced so far.

I love this idea of having Google Voice make its own weird poems out of actual poems. It’s a great twist on the Google-Voice-transcriptions-as-poetry concept. How did you come up with this?

Well, I’ll tell the unnecessarily LONG version so I provide the proper context. I started a Google Voice account when the service started years ago. I didn’t know if it’d be something I used, but it was intriguing enough that I figured I should get a local number and just hold onto it. And I didn’t use it much at all, but it was still linked with my email. So I occasionally got weird messages and voicemails from it — typically spam, trying to tell me I’d won a free iPad or something.

But in December, I received a hilarious voicemail from a couple that had tried to dial 215-821-4761, which I only know because they left a message where they discovered their error, talked about it, tried to figure out how to delete a message, then finally hung up. And the only thing more delightful than the message itself was Google’s attempt at a transcript: “Over. Over. Okay bye. So I just want to put the tanks flooring and I found very racist. 643-4764, that’s 7 network, Okay bye. Not. I need that we do call. We races. Your. Sorry order, Yeah, well at ever. It is proper response option. Yeah.”

I posted it to my Twitter account since I found it so funny, and Lily Applebaum C’12 —who works at Kelly Writers House — sent a reply that said: “That’s the best poem I’ve read all day!” And her reply reminded me that Google Voice “Poetry” is something that exists — so I thought I’d submit it to that site. That’s how it existed in my head: there’s a site out there that posts Google Voice transcripts that are particularly funny. But when I searched for it, I found that there were dozens of sites that did it.

And it’s such a minor thing, but it bothered me!  Poetry can be difficult, but I think it’s too often dismissed as abstract — or weird for the sake of weird — by people who just don’t want to take the time to read it closely. And while I don’t mind people not reading poetry, I guess I did mind all of these sites that were copying one another. So I wanted to try something different.

The site was ultimately born from the idea that poetry is not awful and random, but that I could take this popular idea (bad transcription = poem!) and apply it to poems themselves. It reminded me of something I could have done in a Penn class I took with Kenneth Goldsmith called Uncreative Writing. Let me produce a new piece of writing by using something that already exists.

From there, it just continued to grow. I called to start it. Then I asked friends to call. Then I started using the vast PennSound archives to play readings to Google Voice. And then I started to recall shows and movies that featured poems. It started as something that I thought might be fun for a few days and became something that I’d like to maintain for a while.

Why did you decide to start with Emily Dickinson?

The poem is important to me. You can find it excerpted on the dedication plaque inside the Kelly Writers House, which was an important place for me both as its student, employee and alum. I don’t think I’d be interested in poetry without that place and its people, or without being ushered to Emily and her work. So it just seemed like a natural place to start. Her importance also helped establish that nothing was off-limits. I wasn’t creating this blog to make fun of bad poems. I wanted to feed anything and everything to Google Voice to see what came out on the other side.

Which has been your favorite Google Voice-ified poem so far?

Oof. This was harder to choose than I thought. There are so many good ones. I love the Mad Men reading of Frank O’Hara because it’s opened up some new possibilities in the future. And Tom Devaney called himself after I fed Google Voice a recording of him, so that was a thrill.  But if I’m picking one, it’d have to be “Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins” by Cathy Park Hong.

“Ontology” just struck me as both hilarious as a translation and perfect for the goals of the site: its shape and formatting guide your reading, so it’s exactly the type of work someone might dismiss as too abstract for them. And Google Voice just couldn’t make any sense of it, because it’s built to transcribe simple messages between people. So “Eng” becomes “And” and the poem just mutates into this big, indecipherable mess. I was laughing the entire time I was formatting it for the site.

Is there one that you’ve felt turned out better than the original?

Just today I posted a translation of the poem that Julia Stiles reads in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. The poem is a pretty simple, rhyming piece: the kind of thing you’d expect someone who’s never read much poetry to write. Is the translation better? Maybe, maybe not. But what I like about it is how it gets a lot of the content right, but strips all of the format and musicality. It’s what I’d expect Julia Stiles to read in the movie if she was wearing a beret and didn’t love the guy. So maybe it’s not better, but it equals the trashiness of the original, and that’s probably the best work Google Voice has done so far.

If you want to read a poem for Carroll’s site and see what Google Voice comes up with, here’s the process:

1.  Dial (215) 821-7461.
2.  Leave your full name when prompted.
3.  State the poem’s title and author.
4.  Read the poem. (A note from Carroll: Google Voice has a 3-minute limit on voicemail, so you either have to be brief or call a few times!)

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Filed under Alumni, Written Word

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