Craft

One of the "erasing" poems being created by Jenni B. Baker from each page of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."

Nestled in each of the 1,000-odd pages of prose text in David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, "Infinite Jest," is a poem just waiting to be found.

Jenni B. Baker knows this, because she's spent the past several years ferreting them out, page by page, if not always day by day.

It's a project that may occupy a decade before it ends.

As of 7/26/16, she's at the 293 marker, with perhaps another verse ready in time for this weekend's third annual David Foster Wallace Conference at Illinois State University, where the late author composed "Infinite Jest" while teaching in the English Department.

Baker, a Bethesda, Md.-based poet, will be presenting her work-in-progress in a free public appearance at 7 p.m. Thursday in ISU's Bowling & Billiards Center Activity Room.

The presentation also will feature noted composer Patrick Greene, who has created a classical song cycle to accompany Baker's poems ... which are literally created by erasing Wallace's text, except for the words needed to leave behind a poem.

Its official title is the "Erasing Infinite" series, with 700-plus more to come.

From page 288, for example: "Love .... is ... a .... supportable burden."

From page 284: "Mediocrity is relative ... enough ... offers ... electrify ... an ... interest ... in ... power." 

From page 277: "A ... clown ... has ... many war stories."

And so on, into, if not infinity, at least thousands of words, with hundreds pared away from each page to leave Baker's found poetry.

Please note that the ellipses used above to indicate her erasures are no substitute for the way they are composed on the actual pages, which become part of the poems' visual power (see accompanying image).

Baker crossed paths with "Infinite Jest" in 2009, as part of that year's "Infinite Summer" readathon, a national book club-style campaign that encouraged the reading of 75 pages per day, from June 21 to Sept. 22.

"For me," recalls Baker, "I'd just moved to a new city (Washington, D.C.) after finishing grad school, and for the only time in my life I knew nobody. Wallace's themes about loneliness and self-reflection really resonated with me. It was the right book at the right time."

She admits the book's challenging nature, and she met it head-on, with a little help from the "Infinite Summer" program, which enabled a dialogue with same-time readers who could "discuss, reflect and ask questions."

The received wisdom of "Infinite Jest," she says, is that "if you can make it through the first 200 to 300 pages, by then you are understanding what's happening and understanding more about the characters and their struggles."

Along the way, "I began identifying more with the characters," she says. "I think that we all hope when we read a book, we find something there to connect with in, either in the story or characters."

Jenni B. Baker did, big-time ... to the point that, upon completing Wallace's great work, "I was carried away by a feeling of grief. This book felt immensely relevant to my personal experience, and understanding that there would be no more David Foster Wallace books ... it was very sad."

Instead of letting go of "Infinite Jest," she was inspired to channel her feelings for it through her then-new discovery of "erasure poetry," which entails crafting a poem using only found words.

Originally, they were scavenged from such objects as product packaging.

"Not only did I find the experience delightful, it also helped me move through a long period of writer's block, and opened up new avenues for creative work."

Enter Wallace's cherished prose, and her ongoing "Erasing Infinite" project.

"David's verbosity is both a blessing and a curse," she admits of the prospect of extracting, say, 25 words of poetry from 1,000 of descriptive narrative.

"The blessings are the multiple voices and perspectives he employs, and the way he uses vocabulary to sustain them," she says.

The curse: "Everybody loves the book and Wallace and they know his voice, so it's constantly a struggle for me as someone doing something new and creative not to lean on that too much."

Beyond its function as an outlet for her own creative urges, "Erasing Infinite," she says, "is first and foremost an act of tribute ... a mechanism for celebrating Wallace and dealing with his death."

Craft is Pantagraph arts and entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-820-3259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com

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