Last night, April 14, 2017 there was a groundbreaking event in our small town –the second of its nature in the United States: The grand opening of Telepoem Booth State College, Central Pennsylvania. And the poetry art scene at large owes the expansion of its presence in this exceptional form to the 2017 Viola Award Winner, artist and writer, Elizabeth Hellstern. If you are in the area –downtown State College, that is, stop by Webster’s Bookstore Café. Then simply walk down its stairs, look ahead once on ground level, and be greeted by this public art piece right across the entrance.
In an article, featured in the April 2017 issue of State College Magazine, Steven Deutsch–a local poet and freelance writer and one of the members of The Telepoem Selection Committee offers valuable insight into this “new public art installation” (“Dialing Up Poetry”, 32):
[Quote Start] The Telepoem Booth is a repurposed 1970s rotary dial telephone booth, developed, refurbished, and sent to us by artist and writer Elizabeth Hellstern. When you dial a number, you are connected through a computer to a catalogue of poems, nearly all recorded by the individual poets.
The first Telepoem Booth was showcased at the Festival of Creativity in Mesa, Arizona, in 2016. One currently resides in Flagstaff. Old phone booths have been repurposed as libraries and aquariums in the past, but the conversion to a poem booth is unique to Hellstern. She writes of the idea:
[Sub-quote Start] ‘In the arts we focus on vision, but I’m especially fascinated by touch. To me, touch is a very powerful and intimate sense that requires a one-on-one interaction, unlike sight or sound. It is the first sense. When I was a curator, I began judging beauty by touch as well as sight and I started to explore the concept of haptic experience. As a writer, I pondered the idea of bringing multi-sensory engagement to word. What is the word of art? How can I make words have materiality of object? How can I bring words off the page?
I want words to interact with an audience in a way that is visual and kinesthetic. I want them to feel more intimate and require engagement of the senses. I thought about the forms and objects that have historically helped people to connect to others, forms that were created for moments of intimacy: pay phones and poetry. Combined, these two forms create a whole new experience – the Telepoem Booth’ [Sub-quote End] (Deutsch, 33). [Quote End]
John Ziegler is another name that everyone aware of this newly erected art of ‘touchable’ poetry in State College should know. Inspired by his accidental discovery of the Telepoem Booth in Flagstaff, this local poet together with Hellstern initiated the installation of one in our town.
The Telepoem Selection Committee –consisting also of local poets, judged 327 poems submitted by 86 poets for inclusion in the initial round, as quoted by the TSC chair Sarah Russell in her congratulatory email to those whose submissions were accepted. Deutsch writes the final outcome in the same article cited previously:
[Quote Start] 167 poems by 75 poets were accepted. […] While many of the poets are from the Centre Region, poetry from as far away as Australia is included. For the most part, the individual poets have recorded their poems, so that the voice the listener hears upon dialing up a specific poem will be that of the poet (35). [Quote End]
Today, I feel gratified that two of my poems are among the 167 to dial up and to listen to. The Telepoem Book inside the booth offers a no-nonsense assistance. Poets and poems appear in that directory with their last names under two headings: “Telepoets” and “Genres”, spanning over nineteen genres. I am one of the ‘Telepoets’ whose own voices are heard once the dial-up is complete.
Elizabeth Hellstern: Video (top left) and still picture (top second left)
John Ziegler: Still picture (top center)
[Photo Credit: Self]