While driving in the car one day, Elizabeth Hellstern had an epiphany.
A few years ago, she was living in Flagstaff, Ariz., working as a curator for the Coconino Center For the Arts and studying toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University.
“The thing about being an art curator and preparator is you get to touch the art, and then people come in and they’re not allowed to touch the art,” she said. “I felt that they were missing something that I got to experience and found really special.”
Her self-described epiphany was for a new kind of art project. She wanted to create a way for people to enter a phone booth, dial a number on a rotary phone and hear a poem.
It was a way to merge her two “favorite worlds”: the literary world and the art world.
“I wanted to make it something that was kinesthetic. I feel like that’s one of my primary senses, touch, said Hellstern, who now lives in Cerrillos. “And that’s how I wanted to make my art, so it was touchable and you could listen to it and where it’s more than reading it on a page.”
Since debuting the Telepoem Project in Mesa and Flagstaff in 2016, she’s expanded her vision and reach. Hellstern has installed a permanent Telepoem Booth in State College, Pa., and is introducing the project to her new home state with an installation at the Center for Contemporary Arts.
The CCA Telepoem Booth, which opened in mid-October and will be in the Tank Garage until Jan. 6, is a prelude to two permanent phone booth installations Hellstern is working on, one each for Santa Fe and Las Vegas, N.M. She hopes to have both up and running by the end of this year.
The Santa Fe Telepoem project received funding as part of the city’s Ignite public art program, which puts out an annual call for permanent art installations. According to Jackie Cambrode, the city’s art services coordinator,a project contract for Hellstern is currently going through stages of approval geared toward getting a final sign-off from the city manager. The plans call for coming up with a location for the installation within the next month or so.
Cambrode and Hellstern both mentioned that the project plans were recently amended to be ADA-compliant. Instead of a walk-in booth, the phone will be attached to a kiosk so anyone can use it.
Hellstern is also currently working on logistics for installation of a booth at New Mexico Highland University’s Burris Hall. And a Telepoem booth will be installed in Santa Barbara, Calif., next year at the Wolf Museum of Exploration & Innovation.
Making poems accessible
Part of her project’s goal, Hellstern said, is to make poetry accessible to a mainstream audience through an interactive format that uses the nostalgia of “communication history” – the phone booth and rotary phone – as attractions.
She’s purchased the phone booths online. For phone kiosks, she’s just approached owners of gas stations that still have them and asked for them.
“Poetry can sometimes be intimidating for people and it’s hard to understand poetry when you just read it,” she explained. “I think it needs to be heard, especially in the poet’s voice. Then to put it into a phone booth makes the context kind of fun and exciting, and involves the user. You have to dial, you have to engage, to hear the poem. It takes a bit of effort with the reward of poetry.”
“… So if you make people work for it, then they might value it more.”
Though the booths she’s put up in the past have included directories that specifically featured local poets, for the CCA Telepoem Booth, she curated a directory of about 100 of her own favorites, as well as submitted works.
The poets include about 10 New Mexico writers – former Santa Fe poet laureates Jon Davis, Joan Logghe and Valerie Martinez; current Albuquerque poet laureate Michele Otero; former Albuquerque poet laureate Manuel Gonzalez; off-and-on local resident Lyla June; local poets dj okpik, Rowie Shebala and Arthur Sze; IAIA artist in residence Janet Rogers; and Hellstern herself.
The available poems vary in length, from a 30-second haiku to a 27-minute classic, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. “That one takes a lot of patience,” she said of the 1955 poem. “I’ll have to check my statistics if anyone has finished that.”
Though the directory at the CCA phone booth and the other installations in New Mexico will include a select handful of numbers to dial, visitors can still access the works of any writer who has been included in Hellstern’s overall Telepoem project. Through QR codes near the installation site or from Hellstern’s website, telepoembooth.com, visitors can access old directories for a wider wselection of numbers to hear more poems. In total, Hellstern said, she plans to have database of about 700 poems by the end of this year, written by approximately 300-400 international poets.
The planned permanent Santa Fe kiosk’s directory will include numbers for about 150 poems by writers from Santa Fe County, Hellstern said. The Las Vegas installation will feature works of New Mexico poets statewide.
In the directory, poems are listed by the poet’s name, as well as by genre, such as spiritual, political, humorous and poems for children. Poems featuring adult content are labeled with asterisks.
Visitors can also hear songs, or lyric poetry as Hellstern described it. During an interview at CCA last week, she dialed up a song by Arizona folk singer/cowboy poet Tony Norris. The song’s lyrics started out, “A morning breeze rises from the valley. It smells like dusty cottonwood and rain. From my house looking east, toward the mountains, I hear the whistle of a train.”
“Then you can look up, what do you want to listen to?” Hellstern said of searching by genre. “If you don’t know anybody’s name and you want to listen to something inspiring, you can go to racial issues and listen to something there. Or if you want to hear something salty, you go to sexuality. I kind of feel like there’s something for everyone.”
Going forward, she hopes to continue expanding her idea of people hearing voices from across the world through telepoems and her international network of writers.
“It was a really simple idea to hear poetry through the phone, then the layers of complexity started to compound,” said Hellstern. “The vision is to connect people all over the nation and even internationally to poetry and literally to voices of different regions. My goal is nothing less than to change the world through poetry.
“And to save phone booths along the way.”