The last time a public telephone resided in Southside, it was at the Tourist Home before its complete restoration. On Friday, March 25, a public telephone booth with a character-defining caveat once again made its home south of the tracks.

The Telepoem Booth doesn’t dial to far-off friends. Instead, the vintage rotary-style phone calls up poetry. The Poem Book directs callers — completely free of charge — to choose from 220 poems read by almost 100 poets and readers.

Society shifts

Technology has further separated society from touch. But Elizabeth Hellstern and her partner, Owen William Fritts, were driving down Phoenix Avenue last summer when she dialed in on an idea.

Since leaving her role as the curator at the Coconino Center for the Arts to pursue her Master’s in creative writing, Hellstern contemplated how to reconnect with the arts. She missed the sensory relationship developed with work the public could not touch.

“I got a big buzz from touching art, of course carefully and with respect,” Hellstern said of her time in curation. “I wanted to create art people could touch. I wanted to create art that people could see. And I wanted to create art that people could hear.”

A brainstorming session produced a perfect cross-section: the Telepoem Booth. Ready for its summertime home at 16 S. Beaver Street between Macy’s European Coffee House and White Flag Coin-Op Laundry, the booth challenges notions of public art and how poetry defines our world.

Hellstern, herself a “Telepoet,” lent four pieces to the Poem Book’s first iteration, which will continue to grow. In addition to scores of Valley-based writers, a bevy of notable names including Flagstaffians Tony Norris and James Jay offer their self-read work as well. A chorus of Native American youth from the STAR school read dozens of their self-penned works, too.

“It’s become kind of an oral history,” Hellstern added, noting poems animate through recitation. “Poetry is really important to the spirit of our world; you see it through poetry.”

New and old

The Telepoem Booth — affectionately named Belle — offers listeners a chance to experience their own metamorphosis in the 1970s-era model. Hellstern scoured Craigslist for six weeks before she found a retired firefighter from Sierra Vista with the proper booth.

“He had had it for 30 years,” Hellstern recalled. “He said it was part of the family, and they sold it to me for a song because they liked what I wanted to do with it.”

September 20, 2015, Fritts picked up the booth in Mesa, and brought what has grown into a grassroots community project to Flagstaff for restoration. Brian Hoddy of Northern Arizona Signs (NOAZ) replaced the model’s original signage that once read “phone” using the same Europa Grotesk font and Bell Atlantic Blue color.

“I wanted people to do a double-take,” Hellstern said of mimicking the original look.

David Smith, a software engineer who previously worked in bioinformatics developing software that analyzes DNA, tooled the booth’s “brain” without modifying the vintage rotary phone.

Smith logged more than 60 hours modifying the MP3-style software. Electronics of his own design established the virtual phone network that listens for the 10-digit clicks assigned to each poem. The phone number formula is the poet’s area code, the first three letters of their last name and the poem’s first four characters. The MP3 player selects the corresponding file name and plays it for the listener.

Smith added the design of a system like this should be user friendly. And while the booth is straight-forward enough, the directions posted on the phone itself, above it and on telepoembooth.com indicate the first step in the process: how to operate a rotary phone.

Re-touch

Hellstern noted vintage machines “have been around long enough to acquire a patina of use and symbolism to people.”

“A lot of people have touched this telephone booth, and you can tell. Although it’s shiny, it’s not perfect anymore,” she added. “It’s been used, and used well. There’s an aura of mystery, love and touch that imbeds itself in objects like that.”

And like its Southside home for the summer, Hellstern reminded herself this touch-based technology can be revitalized.

“I was around so many kids who had so much fun dialing a rotary phone in Mesa,” she said of its recent visit to a Mesa Arts Center festival. “I think it’s really cool to bring touch back into society in a really fun, new way. I think it’s very good and wise for us to explore all senses. This is filling a need, I think, for the public.”

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