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]
Supporting the Written Art and Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, PA
[CAUTION: An unedited text lies ahead of you…]
I find the back entrance, park my car where the gate opening gadget used to be, leave the flashers on and unload what I had packed from the night before. Confident that I have thought of everything. I raise my head from my carry-on luggage piece and … am tempted to go right back into my cute red: under the huge tent, every table looks decorated as if touched by a long-time stager, with eye-catching presentation materials everywhere. I pass by the line of tables in slow motion, looking right, looking left, not sure where I am supposed to be heading. Someone who hasn’t skipped a beat to notice who knows what my face looked like, asks me whether I am ____ ( a name other than mine), before I get a chance to answer, a friendly voice rises from the area that I now left behind me: “You are with me!” Her demeanor matches the friendliness of her vocal cords…I make a legal U-turn and am at my table section. She and I will be sharing a table. She has already set up her side, as have anyone whom I can spot from where I am standing. Every time I use the phrase “set up”, please replace it with “donning grandiose details and special effects.” Yes, we have all received the same timely and kind tip as to what to display on our tables. It is obvious: I am the only one who disregarded those well-meant suggestions….Shaking my initial surprised look, I put all that I brought with me on my side of the four-legged multi-purpose platform. “All that” doesn’t amount to much…I see…and can’t deny anymore: I’m ill-prepared. I have only copies of my book and business cards. If it hadn’t been for my dear publisher’s recommendation – my book’s cover as a blown-up poster, stoppers-by or intentional visitors would have easily dismissed me along with those beautiful print products I have my name on. I am petite as it is…
After my initial culture shock wears off (it is my first entry to this part of our world), my two neighboring authors and I start chatting before the crowd comes in: they are both delightful and comforting! It is taking me a while but I begin to stop worrying about what I don’t have with or on me for the potential visitors to my side (such as those attention-getting giveaways, colorful decorations, and prizes all around me). These two beautiful women take me away from my short-lived worries thanks to their calm and calming personalities and their voluntary talks on the genres they specialize in. I learn new things from them also about their experiences in the writing arena. We agree it is a long-time fasting lion-to-unarmed bare-footed-weeks-long-trekking-newborn-place out there. We commiserate – about the state of the various literary genres in our century and how we are subjected to a distinct level of degeneration in the overall interest of the readers (it just wouldn’t do, if we didn’t!) But then we laugh, hard; comment about our expectations for our books’ sales of today – a beautiful day (no storms, not even a mist of rain), critique and analyze ourselves, our passions for writing, and laugh again – best of all, we celebrate. The opportunities we have in our hands; our understanding of and support for one another. Other authors approach our tables and we all communicate, as if we had known one another for our entire lives. At least from my end, this experience is a true pleasure and gives itself in full submission to us as a most memorable time. What display items? What more do I need, I ask myself while no one is looking…
A short while later, my friends arrive and surround me with their “pride” talks directed at “my” event, taking pictures I could not have taken on my own to mark this special occasion in my life (nor would have asked someone else to do). Once again, I laugh – from the core of my being, we hug and (content with how I have been managing myself), they leave to see the rest of the Arts Festival tents and booths. In the early afternoon, another dear friend of mine comes over – despite the fact that she has so much on her tray these days. Finally, my One and Only – my daughter/only child, walks into the tent, pushing my grandson’s stroller, completing my understanding of perfection…
On my way back to my car, my steps feel on water, gliding me away – although I am exhausted from a day quite unusual in its length, intensity and activities. Why my dance-like one-foot-in front of-the other-attitude? For this BookFest hasn’t been about selling books at all! It was rather about exchanging positive energy between people who happen to be readers of this or that genre, making time to meet other people who happen to be writers of such or the other genre. All of whom were ready and willing to connect to one another over one area of their lives, asking and answering questions and laughing together. It was about authentic interaction between people. Period.
May your Sunday and your new week become a memorable delight for you.
Filed under Reflections
Tagged as 4th Annual BookFest, BookFestPA2014, humorous commentary, Pennsylvania authors, Schlow Centre Region Library, State College PA, the written art