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Callers Dial Up Poems In The Telepoem Booth At Mesa Arts Center

telepoem booth
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Elizabeth Hellstern is the creator of the Telepoem Booth.

It gives Superman a spot for a quick change. It takes Dr. Who through space and time. And now, the phone booth is a place to hear poetry.

A new art installation called the Telepoem Booth will make its debut at the Mesa Arts Center Friday. For those who grew up with the phone booth as more of a pop culture icon than a practical tool, the Telepoem Booth comes with clear instructions: Locate a Telepoem number in the Telepoem book. Pick up the handle. Place finger in appropriate number hole on rotary phone. Rotate finger in dialing plate clockwise.

You hear a ring, and on the other line is a poem, like this one: With his kindergarten haircut and conspicuous plastic eyeglasses obscuring the geometry of his cheekbones through non-prescription lenses, Clark Kent is a super-hipster.

That was “Mallville,” by Phoenix poet Shawnte Orion. It’s one of 220 poems available in the directory. Elizabeth Hellstern is the artist who dialed in on the idea. 

“Phone booths are amazing because they are a public communication booth that is entirely private,” Hellstern said.

The Telepoem Booth is a 1970s, glass-paneled booth that Hellstern found on Craigslist. It’s a true relic of the era because it was an actual phone booth, but you can’t exactly use it to reach out to someone anymore.

“No, it does not dial out,” Hellstern said.

Instead it calls up mp3 files of poems - poems from third graders, from established poets and new poets, from Arizona and out of state.

“I really wanted the phone booth to be a place where the poets had an opportunity to let their voices be heard, and I was really looking for a democratic sprinkling of poets,” Hellstern said. 

Orion said the phone booth is a venue he never imagined performing in. 

“It’s exciting just to think that somebody might stumble on to something that I wrote in a way that neither of us expected two months ago,” Orion said.

It’s definitely different than the live readings he’s used to doing in front of an audience. Here, the caller has total control.

“You might’ve had enough of this poem by now; you can hang up on a poet! How often do you wish when you were live you can hang up on this person? Here you have the power finally to just end that poem,” Orion said.

But hopefully they won’t hang up before hearing the last line of “Mallville.”

The man of iron alloy ignores your Skype and text message pleas for help, unless he stumbles upon a vintage phone booth. 

When the caller steps out of the booth, Hellstern hopes the poems travel with him or her, and maybe he or she will start to look for poetry in unexpected places.  

“I think it has been relegated to a stuffy, back-drawer category, and it’s living words, and it’s living beauty, and poets are people who stop and pause and look at beauty and record beauty,” Hellstern said. “The listeners are very important to that process because they’re the ones who carry that beauty forward.”

If they want to revisit it, the poems are only one call away. 

The Telepoem Booth will be at the Mesa Arts Center Friday and Saturday, then it will travel to Flagstaff.

Annika Cline was born in Germany, raised in California and transplanted to Arizona. She studied at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Cline produces and reports for KJZZ’s original production, The Show, covering stories from all corners of the Valley as well as bringing listeners a slice of their own community in the weekly Sounds of the City series.Cline also volunteers as an art instructor for foster youths and their families.