Standing in the phone booth tucked into the lobby of the Center for Contemporary Arts, you might close the cranky sliding door behind you and flip through the spiral-bound booklet on the shelf. Maybe you cradle the heavy black receiver between your ear and shoulder as you listen to the dial tone crackle and then spin 10 digits into the rotary phone. After a few rings, Valerie Martinez answers with a recitation of “Mid-High, 1976,” her poem about a school for ninth-graders that used to exist in downtown Santa Fe. It’s like a trip back in time with the former poet laureate of Santa Fe, a curiously intimate moment as she reads directly into your ear. This is the private yet quite public experience of the Telepoem Booth Project, a vintage 1970s phone booth that has been reconceived as interactive high art.
That’s exactly what Elizabeth Hellstern, the creator of the Telepoem Booth, is hoping for.
Hellstern used to work at an art center in Flagstaff, Arizona. “To me, one of the best parts of my job was being able to touch the art. And then people came into the art center and we couldn’t let them touch it. I really wanted to create a project that was interactive,” she said. After earning her MFA in creative writing at Northern Arizona University, her goal became to meld visual art with words. “I woke up one day with the idea that there should be a telephone booth where you could dial a poem.”
This relatively simple idea turned into a larger project in which individuals can listen to more than 700 poems at one of several refurbished phone booths. It’s not as easy as it may seem, though. The first step is obtaining a phone booth, or the more modern version known as a phone kiosk. (ADA-compliant kiosks replaced phone booths in the 1990s. All of the Telepoem Booths, some of which are actually kiosks, are ADA-accessible.) While 1970s-style phone booths like the one at CCA are collectible (and available on Craigslist and eBay), Hellstern said many kiosks were simply abandoned by phone companies as cellphone use virtually made them obsolete. Hellstern buys booths from collectors and she finds kiosks wherever they have been left, often at rural gas stations. The station owners apparently don’t mind: They’d eventually have to go to the trouble of selling them for scrap — and they aren’t worth much.
After securing a phone booth, Hellstern works with computer programmer David Smith, who created a program that integrates the pulse technology of rotary phones with the digital technology of push-button phones, using a Raspberry Pi microcomputer that answers each call with an MP3 file. Hellstern’s partner, Owen William Fritts, who is also a sculptor, does the retrofitting and fabrication, transforming telephone booths into Telepoem Booths. More than just a project to bring poetry to public spaces, Telepoem Booths are also a way to preserve these vintage objects for future generations; the booths educate younger people today about the recent but quickly fading past.
“This is the moment for me to save these pieces of communication history,” Hellstern said. The booths and kiosks become “rarer and rarer, and they need some love.”
The first booths appeared in Arizona at the spark! Festival of Creativity at the Mesa Arts Center in March 2016. Another was installed in Flagstaff that summer, and still another wound up in State College, Pennsylvania. Hellstern moved to Cerrillos in 2017, and brought the project with her. As of 2019, there are now Telepoem Booths at CCA and New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas. Another booth, called Telepoem Booth Santa Fe, opens at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center at the end of April. In conjunction with National Poetry Month, Hellstern and other local poets have coordinated the Telepoem Booth Speakers Series: Celebrating Poetry, Communication and Technology, a series of panel discussions and readings in April. A chapbook, telepoem booth: santa fe: collected calls (SkyHeart Studio Editions), was published as part of the project, which was made possible in part by a grant from the New Mexico Humanities Council. The book is available for purchase at the events.
The Santa Fe “telepoets” include several former Santa Fe poet laureates and well-published writers, spoken-word and performance poets, and emerging writers. In 2018, a jury listened to about 220 poems submitted as MP3 files in order to choose 180 to add to the CCA Telepoem Booth and Telepoem Booth Santa Fe. To make their decisions, the jury factored in the quality of the poem as well as the sound of a poet’s speaking voice and whether casual listeners would connect to the language they used.
“There were poems that used a lot of big words that made it hard to follow along,” said Edie Tsong, a local poet and yoga teacher who served on the jury. “We were looking for really concrete, experiential poetry, though there are definitely some experimental poems in there. There are also playful poems and poems that have music.”
The poets and poem titles are indexed in a booklet inside the Telepoem Booth, which is styled similarly to a phone book with alphabetical listings by author as well as topic listings, including “love,” “hope,” “friendship,” and “sexuality.” The phone numbers are created using each poet’s area code, the first three letters of their last name, and the first four letters of the poem title. Though Hellstern could not provide listener data for the CCA Telepoem Booth, she said that the one in Flagstaff averaged 118 dials a day during the summer months. She doesn’t know if most users listen to the entire poem or if they hang up partway through. “But if they listened, then they got something from it, whether or not they finished,” she said.
Tsong said the benefit of encountering poetry in a public space is that it enlivens the mundanity of everyday life. “We often use language in a very functional way, like at school, [where] we learn rational things — science and math. We learn to read and write in very specific, organized ways. That touches who we are in society as functional beings, but it doesn’t necessarily touch who we are emotionally or spiritually. Art slows things down so you can access different parts of yourself that get kind of tucked in there when you’re just trying to go to work and pay the bills.”
Matt Sisson, twenty-four, works at the CCA Cinematheque box office and sees a few people use the Telepoem Booth each day. He said that in his experience, younger adults around his age tend to ask for help dialing the rotary phone, while children seem to figure it out by themselves. Sisson steps inside the booth now and then to listen to a poem. He always listens to the whole thing, whether or not he really likes it.
“It would feel wrong to just hang up,” he said. ◀
The Telepoem Booth at Center for Contemporary Arts is at 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 505-982-1338. The installation runs through June 2019.