Junot Diaz is a Poetry Genius

Junot Diaz
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Rap Genius is a deceptively simple idea started by three friends from Yale: a website where users could make their own pop-up annotations to the lyrics of their favorite rap songs, with the most popular crowd-sourced explanations rising to the top. For example, when Kendrick Lamar says “Poetic justice, put it in a song” he’s referring to the 1993 film “Poetic Justice” with rapper Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson (who’s sampled on the track), and “the literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often in modern literature by a twist of fate.”

It’s a goofy concept that was legitimized in October of last year, when it was reported that venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in Rap Genius -- the idea is to make it into Everything Genius, eventually. This idea of annotation has spread to sister sites News Genius, Rock Genius, and Poetry Genius.

For the the musicians and writers whose work gets annotated on the site, the Genius team offers the chance to create verified annotations. It works for rappers like Nas and the aforementioned Lamar, and when it comes to Poetry Genius, so far, it’s working for Junot Diaz. (After all, other authors featured on the site -- F. Scott Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes, for example -- are dead).

Diaz has used his Poetry Genius account to annotate a section of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” It’s a dizzying experience: this author’s singular voice, strung together with references and jokes, explains what he meant when he writes about “the Outlands, (“referring to the blasted landscape of the movie ‘Zardoz,’ played gamely by Ireland, if I remember correctly”), the Badlands (“from Roger Zelazny’s post-apocalyptic novel ‘Damnation Alley’”), the Cursed Earth (“I couldn’t resist mike-checking it, considering that I was obsessed with Judge Dredd when I was a kid and also the ‘curse’ theme of the novel”), and so on and so on. Perhaps the best annotation refers to footnote No. 32, “one of my Melville footnotes, where I simply go buckwild.”


With the Internet serving as a friend and a foe to authors, a total mess with the threat of e-books and the double-edged sword of Twitter and lucky willing Jonathan Franzen-like Luddites staying above the fray and writing essays about their choices, it’s nice to see an author embrace another way to tell his story. Clearly Diaz has won the Internet this week. At least in the -- so far, quite slim -- category of Pulitzer Prize in fiction winners with an Internet presence.


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