Much of what we once used the telephone for, we now use the internet for. Conversely, some tasks to which the internet now seems perfectly suited were once performed, imperfectly, through the phone. Take the case of hearing poetry read aloud. Today, online poetry resources are readily available; you can hear a variety of poets reading their work with a few well-directed clicks of the mouse (see our list below). But in 1976, you’d have had to rely on Phone-a-Poem. Operated out of Cambridge, Massachusetts by poet Peter Payack, the hotline offered readings by his well-known colleagues, including Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Donald Hall, Charles Bernstein, Forrest Gander, and Anne Waldman.
Payack mailed these famous poets blank cassettes to fill with poems and then return; into Payack’s answering machine the tapes would go for eager dialers to hear automatically played back. “I gave the average person a chance to hear a poem, and if they didn’t like it, they could just hang up,” Payack said to the Harvard Gazette’s Colin Manning. “Usually, if you wanted to hear the poet’s voice you had to go to poetry readings, which can be intimidating. But this allowed people to hear the poet’s voice in their own home, so it wouldn’t be intimidating.” Phone-a-Poem went out of commission in 2001, but after a recent exhibition of Payack’s cassettes at Harvard University, you can still hear its poems toll free on, yes, the internet, through the playlist embedded above.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.