Dial-a-poem | John Giorno

In 1969 John Giorno started a poetry ser­vice that was years ahead of its time. He called it Dial-a-poem and here is how it worked:

15 phone lines were conected with indi­vid­ual answer­ing machines, peo­ple could call and lis­ten to a poem. Many of the poems on Dial-a-poem were by hip­ster New York poets that Giorno had recorded like Allen Gins­berg, Anne Wald­man, Ted Berri­gan, the East Vil­lage crowd. Dial-a-poem was a big hit. In the first five months over a mil­lion calls came in and sud­denly dial­ing a poem was assigned as home­work in some New York City schools. But not all the poems were con­sid­ered appro­pri­ate for school kids.

The Board of Edu­ca­tion in New York City received com­plaints about Dial-a-poem, lawyers got involved; John Giorno won the legal bat­tle but he lost fund­ing and you couldn’t dial a poem any­more. Today, most of the record­ings of this extra­or­di­nary audio poetry col­lec­tion an be found online on the web­site ubuweb.com. You can also lis­ten to some of this poems at MoMA. You can also lis­ten to some exam­ples like the fol­low­ing through­out this post:

One day a New York mother saw her 12-year-old son with two friends lis­ten­ing to the tele­phone and gig­gle­ing. She grabbed the phone from them and what she heard freaked her out. This was when Dial-A-Poem was at The Archi­tec­tural League of New York with world­wide media cov­er­age, and Junior Scholas­tic Mag­a­zine had just done an arti­cle and lis­ten­ing to Dial-A-Poem was home­work in New York City Pub­lic Schools. It was also at a time when I was putting out a lot of erotic poetry, like Jim Car­roll’s porno­graphic “Bas­ket­ball Diaries,” so it became hip for the tee­nies to call. The mother and other reac­tionary mem­bers of the com­mu­nity started has­sling us, and The Board of Edu­ca­tion put press­sure on the Tele­phone Com­pany and there were has­sles and more has­sles and they cut us off. Ken Dewey and the New York State Coun­cil on The Arts were our cham­pi­ons, and the heavy lawyers threat­ened The Tele­phone Com­pany with a law­suit and we were instantly on again. Soon after our funds were cut, and we couldn’t pay the tele­phone bill so it ended.

Then we moved to The Museum of Mod­ern Art, where one half the con­tent of Dial-A-Poem was polit­i­cally rad­i­cal poetry At the time, with the war and repres­sion and every­thing, we thought this was a good way for the Move­ment to reach peo­ple. TIME mag­a­zine picked up on how you could call David and Nel­son Rockefeller’s museum and learn how to build a bomb. This was when the Weath­er­men were bomb­ing New York office build­ings. TIME ran the piece on The Nation page, next to the photo of a dead cop shot talk­ing on the tele­phone in Philadel­phia. How­ever, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and The Black Pan­thers were well rep­re­sented. This cou­pled with rag pub­lic­ity really freaked the Trustees of the museum and mem­bers resigned and thou­sands com­plained and the FBI arrived one morn­ing to inves­ti­gate. The Musuem of Mod­ern Art is a ware­house of the plun­der and rip off for the Rock­e­feller fam­ily and they got upset at being in the sit­u­a­tion of sup­port­ing a sys­tem that would self-destruct or self purify, so they ordered the sys­tem shut down. John High­tower, MOMA Direc­tor, was our cham­pion with some heavy changes of con­science, and he wouldn’t let them silence us, for a short while. Then later John High­tower was fired from MOMA and Ken Dewey recently fly­ing alone in a small plane crashed and died.

In the mid­dle of the Dial-A-Poem expe­ri­ence was the giant self-consuming media machine choos­ing you as some of its food, which also lets you get your hands on the con­trols because you’ve made a new sys­tem of com­mu­ni­cat­ing poetry. The news­pa­per, mag­a­zine, TV and radio cov­er­age had the effect of mak­ing every­one want to call the Dial-A-Poem. We got up to the max­i­mum limit of the equip­ment and stayed there. 60,000 calls a week and it was totally great. 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, then the sec­ond busiest time was 8:30 PM to 11:30 PM was the after-dinner crowd, then the Cal­i­for­nia calls and those trip­ping on acid or couldn’t sleep 2 AM to 6 PM. So using an exist­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem we estab­lished a new poet-audience relationship.

Dial-A-Poem began at the Archi­tec­tural League of New York in Jan­u­ary 1969 with 10 tele­phone lines and ran for 5 months, dur­ing which time 1,112,337 calls were received. It con­tin­uted at MOMA in July 1970 with 12 tele­phone lines and ran for 2 and a half months and 200,087 calls were received. It was at The Musuem of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Chicago for 6 weeks in Novem­ber 1969 and since then has cropped up every­where. This was with equip­ment work­ing at max­i­mum capac­ity and some­times jam­ming the entire exchange. At MOMA, the 12 lines were each con­nected to an auto­matic answer­ing set, which holds a pre-recorded mes­sage. Some­one call­ing got ran­domly one of 12 dif­fer­ent poems, which were changed daily. There were around 700 selec­tions of 55 poets.”

John Giorno, August 1972

Giorno extended Dial-a-Poem into the 1970s and 1980s, pro­duc­ing five LP records under the label John Giorno Poetry Sys­tems that include works by estab­lished poets like Ash­bery and young artists and musi­cians such as John Cage, Patti Smith, and David Byrne. This ver­sion of Dial-a-Poem includes the 30 orig­i­nal poets fea­tured in Infor­ma­tion, plus 50 culled from Giorno’s sub­se­quent recordings.

You can now lis­ten to Dial-a-Poem by call­ing the local New York num­ber 347-POET001 on your own phone. (Dial-a-Poem is free, but your mobile phone fees will apply.)

Watch below a recent inter­view of John Giorno where he pro­vides more details of his rela­tion­ship with Andy Warhol, the poets of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion and Dial-a-Poem.


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