April 21, 2016

Poems for all those people, sitting at desks in New York office buildings


Image via Gizmodo

Image via Gizmodo

If you dialed the phone number (212) 628-0400 between the years 1969 and 1971, you’d have been greeted with the recorded voice of William S. Burroughs, or John Cage, or Anne Waldman, or Jim Carroll, or any number of other writers, artists, and activists reading you a poem, a story, a song, a speech. It started at the Architectural League of New York, where John Giorno had set up 10 telephone lines for a project called Dial-a-Poem.

“The busiest time was 9 AM to 5 PM, so one figured that all those people sitting at desks in New York office buildings spend a lot of time on the telephone,” Giorno wrote. The second-busiest time was “the after-dinner crowd,” between 8:30 PM and 11:30 PM. After that came “the California calls and [the calls from people] tripping on acid or [who] couldn’t sleep,” starting around 2 AM.

Eventually Dial-a-Poem lost its funding (the recordings were often controversial: “Some are dirty. Some are radical. A lot are about guns,” Sarah Boxer reported for The New York Times), but a selection of poems exists in an archive hosted by UbuWeb, which Moby reported earlier, along with the news that if you dial the old Dial-a-Poem number today, you might be disappointed (or not?) to reach the Donna Messenger Skin Care Clinic.

Still, there are some really lovely, active tribute projects, like the DIAL-FSG series, which celebrates National Poetry Month with recordings from FSG’s stable of prize-winning poets (from Elizabeth Bishop to John Berryman to Rowan Ricardo Phillips), all read by FSG’s president and publisher Jonathan Galassi.

Throughout the month, there will be new poems up daily at 949-DIAL-FSG (949-342-5374). Yesterday’s was a recording of the excellent “Snowdrops” by Louise Glück, perfect for “the cold light / of earliest spring.”



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.