Dialing Up Poetry
“Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments…because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said.” —W.S. Merwin
While most scholars would agree that poetry predates literacy and was used in early society to preserve history, legality and narrative, you would be hard pressed to find two who agreed on its definition. Perhaps it’s just something you know when you see it — or hear it. The magic and mystery of poetry will have a new home in State College — just in time for National Poetry Month, on April 15, with the installation of a Telepoem Booth at Webster’s Bookstore Cafe.
“The what?” you might ask. The Telepoem Booth is a repurposed 1970s rotary dial telephone booth, developed, refurbished, and sent to us by artist and writer Elizabeth Hellstern. When you dial a number, you are connected through a computer to a catalogue of poems, nearly all recorded by the individual poets.
The first Telepoem Booth was showcased at the Festival of Creativity in Mesa, Arizona, in 2016. One currently resides in Flagstaff. Old phone booths have been repurposed as libraries and aquariums in the past, but the conversion to a poem booth is unique to Hellstern. She writes of the idea:
“In the arts we focus on vision, but I’m especially fascinated by touch. To me, touch is a very powerful and intimate sense that requires a one-on-one interaction, unlike sight or sound. It is the first sense. When I was a curator, I began judging beauty by touch as well as sight and I started to explore the concept of haptic experience. As a writer, I pondered the idea of bringing multi-sensory engagement to word. What is the word of art? How can I make words have materiality of object? How can I bring words off the page?
“I want words to interact with an audience in a way that is visual and kinesthetic. I want them to feel more intimate and require engagement of the senses. I thought about the forms and objects that have historically helped people connect to others, forms that were created for moments of intimacy: pay phones and poetry. Combined, these two forms create a whole new experience — the Telepoem Booth.”
In action, the Telepoem Booth is relatively simple. A directory of poets and poems is printed in a spiral bound Telepoem Book installed in the booth. Users access poems by dialing a 10-digit phone number on the rotary dial. The area code is the poet’s own, the prefix is the first three digits of the poet’s last name, and the suffix is the first four letters of the poem’s title (excluding “The”).
For example, if you were to dial 814-626-3233, you would hear Lisa McMonagle, a State College resident, read her poem about life’s tenacity:
Daffodils in January
On impulse, I buy
a four inch pot,
forced to bloom
in January, a child star
coaxed onto the stage.
Tall, spindly stalks,
little more than thick
blades of grass, heavy
blossoms ready to topple
off the stems like a man
After a week the petals
wither, turn the brown
of old vellum. I trim
the yellowed stalks
down to the dirt, intend
to transplant the bulbs
in the earth, forget.
Spring, summer, fall.
A blade pierces the soil,
casual as a wildflower.
Poems are also organized by genre. Nineteen genres are represented, including family, friendship, life, loss/death, sexuality, sorrow and work. Stopping by the booth one day, you might be tempted to browse under “life,” where you would find Paula Schroeder’s “Coal Child.”
I was born with a shock of dark, dark hair,
mined from the depths of the womb
like coal that’s been torn from the mother lode.
My fathers wore black face,
inhaled smoke dust
digging slaty rock out of the earth
and into the house
to burn hot and dirty.
Like my mothers before me
I wage war against soot and ash,
sweep it into neat little piles
and whisk it out the back door.
I carry a chunk of bitumen through life,
display it in the living room
of every house I’ve ever called home.
I force its flame,
before time and stress
can transform it into diamonds.
Sometimes I hold the lump between my breasts—
its impression strips my heart.
The Telepoem Booth has been quite a success in Flagstaff, with 80 poems dialed up every day. City council member Coral Evans said, “It entices one to stop and ‘make a call’ that touches the soul.”
Perhaps you will have the pleasure of dialing up a poem by one of the youngest authors included in the Telepoem Booth selections, Ellie Kaufman, age 10:
Into the fierce winds
Blowing all around
Left and right up and down
Through those winds
a figure flying
fast and strong
a lone bird
flying like the wind
THE FIERCE WIND
Serendipity helped bring the Telepoem Booth to State College. John Ziegler, a local poet and potter and former Bellefonte teacher, was visiting his son in Flagstaff when he came upon the Telepoem Booth (through social media) and decided it would be perfect for State College. “The Telepoem Booth that will live in State College will bring poets’ voices to the community — literally, their voices, heard through a telephone receiver in a refitted telephone booth,” Ziegler said. With the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, donor-advised funds from Centre Foundation and other logistical assistance through the team at Centre Foundation, Ziegler and Hellstern were able to bring a Telepoem Booth to State College. Centre Foundation is in the process of transferring ownership of the booth to The Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania, a local arts group.
A first call for poetry submissions to the State College Telepoem Booth went out late last fall. The only restrictions were to limit the length to no more than 40 lines and to prohibit poems with sexually graphic or hateful content. Sarah Russell, a local poet, said of the submissions, “Poems on any topic are welcome... This includes narrative, free and rhymed verse and slam poetry. We want folks to have fun and maybe even to be inspired when they pick up the receiver and dial a poem.”
More than 300 poems were judged for inclusion by a group of five local poets, and 167 poems by 75 poets were accepted. The judges were aware of the age of the poet and were sensitive to the fact that they were judging poetry that was to be read aloud for an audience that includes the entire community. While many of the poets are from the Centre Region, poetry from as far away as Australia is included. For the most part, the individual poets have recorded their poems, so that the voice the listener hears upon dialing up a specific poem will be that of the poet.
For example, you might dial up a poem by the poet, playwright and Penn State professor Mary Rohrer-Dann to hear her recite:
Evening Concert (for Chelsea)
Young families sprawled in the grass
make me ache for days
when you were small.
Curled on a checkered quilt
a mother traces letters on her daughter’s back.
How you loved that game—love it still—
luscious touch light as smoke,
nexus of consonant and vowel.
My palm spanned your little-girl shoulders,
narrow blades opening into adolescence.
Now, when you are too briefly home
we practice the body’s calligraphy once more.
How lovely, your shoulders’ broad elegance,
How shapely, the strength of your hands.
Or you might like to hear from teenage poet Franziska Lee (daughter of two State College natives now residing in Connecticut):
when the sun comes up,
iphis brings ianthe coffee
they sit on the roof in
the purple gold light
morning people are so hard to find
ianthe, shaded violet,
listens to exclusively katy perry
and does yoga on wednesdays,
looks like a renaissance painting
takes her coffee black
mares do not burn for mares
i wish it were not
my skin that betrayed me,
my hands my stomach my treacherous
heart. last night i drove through
the queens-midtown tunnel
and thought the end was burning
the patch of sky obscured
what way out is there left?
ianthe takes her hand
two girls on a roof and the sky
is burning. ianthe says:
this is okay.
Join the community on April 14 at 7 p.m. as the newest public art installation in State College is revealed and dedicated. Dial up a poem and experience some magic. Perhaps it will inspire you to come up with your own definition of poetry — even better than that provided by Emily Dickinson, who wrote: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” •SCM
While the Telepoem Booth will begin with the 167 poems chosen in the initial round of submissions, there are plans to reopen the call for submissions in the fall. In addition, the selection committee would like to acquire poems from students at local schools and universities, prisoners in nearby correctional facilities as well as established and visiting poets. Send them your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Between visits, keep up on Telepoem events and news via the Telepoem Booth State College Facebook page.