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.