With the heavy receiver unhooked, the dial tone’s steady hum chants a tune to another world only 10 simple clicks away. On the other end of the line, like a friend offers consolation, insight into a glaring truth, or a fist in the air of the world’s gloom, poetry is a pal willing to accept the charges of this collect call—and it’s for you.
The generational gap of technology has further separated those who never have held a physical telephone. All too aware of how far society has deviated from touch, Elizabeth Hellstern and her partner, Owen William Fritts, were driving down Phoenix Avenue last summer when she dialed in on an idea. She contemplated how to reconnect with the arts since leaving her job as the curator at the Coconino Center for the Arts to pursue her Master’s in creative writing. She missed the sensory relationship she developed with work the public could not touch.
“I got a big buzz from touching art, of course carefully and with respect,” Hellstern says of her time in curation. “Touching the art was very important to me, so 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 in the central overlap of her artistic dream’s Venn diagram Flagstaff’s newest public art installation: the Telepoem Booth. Ready for its summertime home on the wall 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.
The glass-paned booth from the 1970s is as original as it gets. Though the rotary-style phone no longer dials out, it calls up a poem of the listener’s choosing from the Poem Book that includes 220 poems by almost 100 poets and readers—so far.
Wanting a phone booth to offer the Dr. Who-experience of poetry, Hellstern scoured Craigslist for six weeks to no avail. Not yet ready to accept defeat, she searched one last time, and found a retired firefighter from Sierra Vista who possessed what she craved to add to Arizona streets.
“He had had it for 30 years,” Hellstern recalls of the booth. “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 it to the pair’s Southside studio-shop for restoration. Brian Hoddy of Northern Arizona Signs (NOAZ) replaced the original signage using the same Europa Grotesk font and Bell Atlantic Blue color natural to this ’70s model. Everything except the color and text of the signs that once read simply “phone” is original—even the acrylic the text is printed on.
“I wanted people to do a double-take,” Hellstern says of mimicking the original look.
Next was to build the “brain.” David Smith, a software engineer who previously worked in bioinformatics developing software that analyzes DNA, tooled the booth’s Frankenstein feature without modifying the vintage rotary phone.
“The basic start of the project was I needed to make something that pretends to be a telephone network from the point of view of a rotary phone,” Smith explains.
In more than 60 hours over two months, Smith first enlisted open-source Arduino software with an MP3 player board. Electronics of his own design then established the virtual phone network, and he dialed in the software to listen 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 adds 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 the website indicate the first step in the process: how to operate a rotary phone.
A new age of art
The Telepoem Booth has traveled extensively in its short life, including to the recent Spark! Festival of Creativity at the Mesa Arts Center. Children clamored to have a crack at the “foreign” technology. In an age where even toddlers are proficient in the language of button-less smartphones, these kids didn’t even know to pick up the receiver before they plunged fingertips into the rotary dial.
Hellstern notes typewriters, rotary phones and pneumatic tubes like the ones that suck up your deposit at the bank drive-thru wear a veil of a romantic era long gone. She suspects it’s because these objects have been built to last and “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 adds. “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 reminds herself this old-school technology can be revitalized.
“People don’t really dial [today], they just push. There’s no real kinesthetic feedback,” Hellstern says. “I was around so many kids who had so much fun dialing a rotary phone in Mesa, and I think it’s really cool to bring touch back into society in a really fun, new way … I also am a very haptic-type person. I think it’s very good and wise for us to explore all senses. This is filling a need, I think, for the public.”
The Telepoem Booth has taken on a life of its own as a grassroots-supported community endeavor. Flagstaff’s Beautification and Public Art Commission generated the funds (derived from the Bed, Board and Booze tax) for this project’s initial phase.
The community has picked up the rest with sponsorships from Rooftop Solar, NOAZ, Hellstern’s “sweat equity,” and a grip of poets and readers plus promoters and more who spread the word. Though the slots at the top of the phone still accept coins, each “call” is completely free.
First, pick a poem
While the brain may power the booth, the Poem Book offers a walkable path through its shelves. Of the 220 poems, some readers recite their own work, while others read classic poems like those given with permission from the estate of Allen Ginsberg or the late Steve Kowit’s widow. Hellstern, herself a Telepoet, included four poems in its pages.
“Having it read by the poet is that the human voice brings poetry to life in a way that the words on a page can’t. A poem is really meant to be alive. It was alive when the poet wrote it, and it’s meant to be relived through the human voice,” Hellstern says, noting the project’s definitive feature.
Further pushing poetic bounds, Hellstern included Jane Ellen Armstrong’s micro-essays. The Viola Award-winning work that comprised, Aphasia: Neurological Disorder in Text and Image, Hellstern says, fits poetic rhythm perfectly. Armstrong herself says the Telepoem Booth has potential to—as only art can—alter the life of someone performing the simple ritual of laundry.
The writer is quick to note she is a Tele-essayist participating in an idea she commends for challenging what and where art should be, and for Hellstern’s collection of Flagstaff’s impressive literary coterie.
“As a lady of a certain age, I grew up with rotary-dial phones, and actually entering the booth and dialing the phone was like being in a time machine,” she says. “And then my voice sounded like I was getting a call from myself from the ’70s. It was crazy and wonderful! I think the essential genius of Elizabeth’s project is in the way it warps time and redefines space and uses poetry as a form of transport.”
And with its prominent placement on a busy Flagstaff thoroughfare—one even presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders recently visited—there is a guarantee scores of people will fulfill Hellstern’s and her collected readers’ dream of bringing a poetic chorus to the masses.
Even on her weary days, Hellstern ventured as far away as the STAR School near Flagstaff to include myriad voices. Energized by the sessions’ end, the result has 30 3rd and 4th graders reading, lending the voices of Native American youth.
The support spread across Arizona as a friend in Mesa, David Crummey, recorded almost 50 Valley-based poets. Other supporters noted they’d like to have more of their favorite, classic poems. That tiny SD card can hold tens of thousands of poems, and the future will see the Poem Book swell. Hellstern says one to watch for is one of her favorites, Albert Goldbarth. The Kansas-based poet offered his support in response to her hand-written letter.
“It’s become kind of an oral history, and I love oral histories and how they capture the zeitgeist of the times,” Hellstern adds. “Poetry is really important to the spirit of our world: you see it through poetry, you see what people are talking about. Now that I know how to record and edit audio files, it’s really easy to do.”
The Telepoem Booth will see its Flagstaff debut Fri, March 25 at 5:30 p.m. with catering from Macy’s and thank-you speeches from Hellstern and community supporters. It will stay there, at 16 S. Beaver, through summer. To learn more, check out the Telepoem Booth on Facebook, or visit www.telepoembooth.com.