Dial-a-Poem: The Groundbreaking Phone Service That Let People Hear Poems Read by Patti Smith, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg & More (1968)

Thanks for allow­ing me to be a poet. A noble effort, doomed, but the only choice. —John Giorno, Thanx for Noth­ing

Dial­ing a poem today, I’m con­nect­ed to Joe Brainard, who died of AIDS-relat­ed pneu­mo­nia in 1994, read­ing an excerpt of “I Remem­ber.” He stum­bles over some words. It’s excit­ing. There’s a feel­ing of imme­di­a­cy. When the read­ing ends in an old-fash­ioned dial tone, I imme­di­ate­ly think of a half-dozen friends I’d like to call (assum­ing they respond to some­thing that’s not a tag or text).

“Take down this num­ber,” I’d say. “641–793-8122. Don’t ask ques­tions. Just call it. You’ll love it.”

And they prob­a­bly would, though they wouldn’t hear the same record­ing I did.

As Dial-A-Poem’s founder, the late John Giorno, remarked in a 2012 inter­view:

 A per­son asked me the oth­er day: “What hap­pens if I lis­ten to a poem and I want to tell a friend to lis­ten to it?” I told him: “Well, she can’t.” [laughs] That’s the point. What hap­pens is, when things are real­ly suc­cess­ful, you cre­ate desire that is unful­fil­l­able. That’s what makes some­thing work.

Giorno estab­lished Dial-A-Poem in 1968, plac­ing ten land­lines con­nect­ed to reel-to-reel answer­ing machines in a room in New York City’s Archi­tec­tur­al League:

I sort of stum­bled on [the con­cept] by chance… I was talk­ing to some­one on the tele­phone one morn­ing, and it was so bor­ing. I prob­a­bly had a hang­over and was prob­a­bly crash­ing, and I got irri­ta­ble and said to myself at that moment, “Why can’t this be a poem?” That’s how the idea came to me. And we got a quar­ter of a page in The New York Times with the tele­phone num­ber you could dial. 

In its first four-and-a-half months of oper­a­tion, Dial-A-Poem logged 1,112,237 incom­ing calls, includ­ing some from lis­ten­ers over­seas. (The orig­i­nal phone num­ber was 212–628-0400.) The hours of heav­i­est traf­fic sug­gest­ed that a lot of bored office work­ers were sneak­ing a lit­tle poet­ry into their 9‑to‑5 day.

Dial-A-Poem recon­ceived of the tele­phone as a new media device:

Before Dial-A-Poem, the tele­phone was used one-to-one. Dial-A-Poem’s suc­cess gave rise to a Dial-A-Some­thing indus­try: from Dial-A-Joke, Dial-A-Horo­scope, Dial-A-Stock Quo­ta­tion, Dial Sports, to the 900 num­ber pay­ing for a call, to phone sex, and ever more extra­or­di­nary tech­nol­o­gy. Dial-A-Poem, by chance, ush­ered in a new era in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Fea­tured poets includ­ed such heavy hit­ters as William S. Bur­roughsPat­ti SmithAllen Gins­berg, Ted Berri­g­an, Robert Cree­leySylvia PlathCharles Bukowski, and Frank O’Hara (who “only liked you if you wrote like him”).

The con­tent was risqué, polit­i­cal, a direct response to the Viet­nam War, the polit­i­cal cli­mate, and social con­ser­vatism. No one both­ered with rhymes, and inspi­ra­tion was not nec­es­sar­i­ly the goal.

Unlike Andy WarholJasper Johns, and oth­er career-mind­ed artists who he hung out with (and bed­ded), Giorno nev­er made a secret of his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. Sex­u­al­ly explic­it and queer con­tent had a home at Dial-a-Poem.

Mean­while, Dial-a-Poem was fea­tured in Junior Scholas­tic Mag­a­zine, and dial­ing in became a home­work assign­ment for many New York City Pub­lic School stu­dents.

Two twelve-year-old boys near­ly scup­pered the project when one of their moth­ers caught them gig­gling over the Jim Car­roll poem, above, and raised a ruckus with the Board of Ed, who in turn put pres­sure on the tele­phone com­pa­ny to dis­con­tin­ue ser­vice. The New York State Coun­cil on the Arts’ lawyers inter­vened, a win for horny mid­dle school­ers… and poet­ry!

For any­one inter­est­ed, an album called You’re A Hook: The 15 Year Anniver­sary Of Dial-A-Poem (1968–1983) was released in 1983. Vinyl copies are still float­ing around.

If you dial 641.793.8122, you can still access record­ings from an archive of poet­ry, notes SFMo­MA.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Stream Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings from Harvard’s Rich Audio Archive: From W.H. Auden to Dylan Thomas

Library of Con­gress Launch­es New Online Poet­ry Archive, Fea­tur­ing 75 Years of Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings

Car­toon­ist Lyn­da Bar­ry Reveals the Best Way to Mem­o­rize Poet­ry

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (3)
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  • Mark guncheon says:

    I wrote a book that was pub­lished back in 1983 by Con­tem­po­rary Books out of Chica­go. It was “The Incred­i­ble Dial-A-Mes­sage Direc­to­ry.” It includ­ed Dial-a-Poem along with thou­sands of oth­er num­bers. My favorite was the dial a con­fes­sion line out of New York which fea­tured peo­ple con­fess­ing to things they sup­pos­ed­ly did.

  • John Horton says:

    Tried the list­ed phone num­ber sev­er­al times. After a minute of silence, a record­ing of a pleas­ant-sound­ing British women asked for my “6‑digit access num­ber, fol­lowed by the pound key.” Oh, well–no ran­dom poet­ry for me.

  • C.L, says:

    Mark, that’s real­ly inter­est­ing! I tried to do some search­es about the old Dial-a-Con­fes­sion line to see if it was in oper­a­tion in 1985 (I’m research­ing for a nov­el), but I could­n’t find any infor­ma­tion on it. Do you know how long the con­fes­sion line was in ser­vice in NY?



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