isn 1968, the poet and visual artist John Giorno is on the phone when an idea comes to his mind. It occurred to him that “the voice was the poet, the words were the poem, and the phone was the place.” He imagined using the telephone as a means of mass communication, in order to generate a new relationship between the poet and the audience. It would become Dial-a-Poem: a phone number that anyone could call, 24/7, and listen to a randomly recorded poem -eeing up the spoken poetry of what Giorno called “the situation of a conference room that stifles the senses ”. As part of New York’s avant-garde scene, he quickly enlisted talent, recording figures such as John Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman and David Henderson reading poems at 222 Bowery, his loft. He found a project sponsor, 10 answering machines equipped with these recordings were patched together and connected to the phone lines, and Dial-a-Poem went live.
In 1970, the project moved to MoMA, expanding to accommodate a total of 700 poems by 55 poets, including Black Panther poets and queer erotic poetry. As the project gained media coverage, calls to Dial-a-Poem skyrocketed by the hundreds of thousands, straining the Upper East Side telephone exchange. It is a strong image – thousands of people who, out of desire or collective curiosity, have pushed the project and its public infrastructure to the breaking point. Giorno was interested in the pattern of calls. He imagined bored office workers phoning from their desks, or people stumbling on acid, unable to sleep, dialing at 2 am. The popularity of the project, for him, was “a poignant expression of people’s need and loneliness.”
As part of the first posthumous UK exhibition of Giorno’s work at Almine Rech, London, Dial-a-Poem is live again. You can compose a poem in situ, at the gallery, using an installed push-button phone. Excitingly, you can also compose from your own phone / device, free of charge, 24 hours a day: poems on demand, with no subscription fees. The telephone number is +44 (0) 20 4538 8429.
I first dialed the number while walking in the park, in a leather jacket, in the rain. One of Giorno’s own poems downplayed the line. He read: “Big fat raindrops adorned with radioactivity soaked in that black leather jacket. It was exciting, unique poetic moment of synchronicity – and I was addicted. I called the supermarket and got Denise Levertov. I called brushing my teeth and got Tom Weatherly. Composing a poem is a strangely intimate experience – vaguely voyeuristic, clandestine, as if the poets were addressing each other directly your, to confess, shock or enlighten, while remaining anonymous.
Ilya Kaminsky once said that a great poet speaks privately to many people at the same time. In this sense, poetry is a private language, share. Does such an exchange benefit – or even require – privacy? Recent poetry projects have probed this idea: Amy Key’s Poets in Bed podcast (an “Ongoing Intimate Experience”) features contemporary poets reading works under their own quilts. In 2014, New York-based Alex Dimitrov started Night Call, a performance project for which he read his poems to strangers in their beds, suggesting that being in a person’s space is “often more private than sleeping with them.”
Can social media, our current means of mass communication, facilitate such an intimate exchange between poet and public on a larger scale? Instapoets such as Rupi Kaur and Atticus have amassed millions of followers by sharing their poetry on social media platforms. These poets use these same platforms to sell merchandise – “ergonomic” brass pens, jewelry, sets of magnetic poetry. As a result, their work reads like a successful amalgamation of poetry and publicity. It suits the medium; one could argue that social media works more effectively as a market than as a way to really connect with others. Participation in social media is inherently transactional: in exchange for access, we constantly exchange (by degrees, without knowing it, tacitly or voluntarily) our privacy – our geolocation, our browsing habits, our contacts – so that companies can advertise us more effectively, and become more productive consumers.
It seems difficult to generate the conditions for intimacy in such a compromised setting. During the lockdown, however, there was a proliferation of poetry events hosted on video conferencing apps. Their relatively democratized nature (many were free, anyone could register, regardless of location) sparked late conversations in the literary world about how accessibility is often overlooked in physical places and the world. London centering of the scene.
At these online events, during and after a poet’s reading, heart emojis bloomed in the chat box – an expression of audience appreciation that, being spontaneous and not obligatory, often felt more authentic than the IRL applause. , while reminiscent of naive, less publicized and commercial forms of online communication (remember MSN Messenger?) you will briefly spot people in their homes; alone or with lovers; eat, smoke; illuminated by the screen, sometimes by candlelight – visual testimony of the private exchange but shared between the poet and the public in which we participated.
Dial-a-Poem received over a million calls before it lost its funding and ended in 1971. There have been complaints of indecency, claiming the poems incite violence. The FBI has investigated and, in Giorno’s words – an observation that seems to prove the cultural value of Dial-a-Poem – “the administrators [were] starts to panic ”. Subsequently, Giorno produced a series of records with the Dial-a-Poets. In the notes of one of them he wrote: “We used the telephone for poetry. They used it to spy on you, ”referring to the unfounded surveillance paranoia of the Watergate era. It’s ironic, but reminds us of the vulnerability and value of intimate and unmediated exchanges between artist and audience.