Dial-a-Poem: a brief history

For its founder, John Giorno, the idea began on the telephone. In his own words: ‘I was talking on the phone at like eleven o’clock in the morning and it was boring gossip and you know how you get irritated’; but then, he says, he heard a ‘voice saying words’ and realized that ‘this voice could … be a poem’.[1] Recognising that the telephone could be used to introduce poetry to a huge and global audience, Giorno created ‘Dial-a-Poem’. It began fairly modestly, with ten telephones and reel-to-reel tapes of thirteen poets each reading around twelve poems, all recorded by Giorno at his loft in the Bowery. Then, ten telephone lines were installed at the Architectural League of New York in January 1969. At first, people were slow to pick up, but on 14 January 1969, an article appeared in the New York Times. Written by Richard Shepard, the article begins: ‘A new service, yoking the genius of the telephone company to the genius of living poets, now makes it possible for anyone with access to a dial to listen to ready-to-roll verse at any hour of the day or night’.[2] After that, it received widespread media attention, including an article in Junior Scholastic Magazine. Listening to Dial-a-Poem was even set for homework in New York City Public Schools, and in just five months over a million people called.[3] The coverage, according to Giorno, had ‘the effect of making everyone want to call the Dial-A-Poem. We got up to the maximum limit of the equipment and stayed there. 60,000 calls a week and it was totally great’.[4] As a result, he says, the telephone ‘established a new poet-audience relationship’.[5]

Despite the potency of Giorno’s idea, the service was beset by interruptions. Parents and other members of the local community mounted complaints about the erotic content of many of the poems. Giorno recalls: ‘The Board of Education put pressure on the Telephone Company and there were hassles and more hassles and they cut us off’.[6] But Dial-a-Poem continued to have its own champions, including legal backing from writer and director Ken Dewey. Threatened with a lawsuit, the Telephone Company reinstalled the lines, but soon after that the museum ran out of funding and the lines were cut again. Unable to pay the telephone bill, Dial-a-Poem at The Architectural League of New York ended. A few months later, however, in November 1969, Dial-a-Poem moved to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for six weeks, and then in July 1970,the service moved again to The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where twelve telephone lines ran for two and a half months and 200,087 calls were received as part of the Information exhibition.[7] The service became increasingly known for its revolutionary politics and counter-cultural messages, and included works by a number of radical writers and artists. The FBI was called in to investigate, and then the MOMA director John Hightower, who had been supportive of the experiment, was fired. [8] And so, once again, the system was shut down.  Giorno recalls in the liner notes to his Dial-A-Poem album of 1974: ‘Dial-A-Poem received millions of phone calls, yet we were disconnected’.[9]

But although the line was cut, the relationship between poetry and telephony persists. In fact, Dial-a-Poem has had numerous incarnations since 1970, across the US in Philadelphia, Albany, Indianapolis, and Providence, but also further afield in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany. In 2012, the service was replicated at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their ‘Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language’ exhibition, and again in 2017 for Ugo Rondinone’s ‘I ♥ John Giorno’ exhibition at the Red Bull Arts Gallery in New York.[10]

2020 sees the reboot of Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem service in the form of a mobile app and sound installation in a phone booth in Nottingham, UK. The Crossed Lines project has welcomed contributions from poets from around the world, including eighteen new commissions from international award-winning writers, and the results of a national student poetry competition.

[1] John Giorno with Brian Patten, ‘Dial-a-Poem’, BBC Radio 4 (June 2013); available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0366wnh [accessed 15 March 2019]

[2] Richard F. Shepard, ‘Dial-A-Poem, or Even a Hindu Chant,’ New York Times (14 January 1969), p.34.

[3] Michael S. Hennessey, ‘Poetry by Phone and Phonograph: Tracing the Influence of Giorno Poetry Systems’, in Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies, ed. Matthew Rubery (London: Routledge, 2011), pp.76-91 (p.82).

[4] John Giorno, ‘Dial-a-Poem Hype’ (August 1972); available at http://www.ubu.com/sound/dial.html [accessed 15 March 2019].

[5] Giorno, ‘Dial-a-Poem Hype’.

[6] Giorno, ‘Dial-a-Poem Hype’.

[7] Giorno, ‘Dial-a-Poem Hype’.

[8] Giorno, ‘Dial-a-Poem Hype’.

[9] John Giorno, Disconnected (Giorno Poetry Systems, 1974), liner notes.

[10] See Karen Rosenberg, ‘Building Blocks of Meaning, Re-translated’, New York Times (3 May 2012); available at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/arts/design/ecstatic-alphabets-heaps-of-language-at-moma.html; Joshua Barone, ‘A Kaleidoscopic John Giorno Retrospective, Sprinkled Around New York’, New York Times (5 May 2017); available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/arts/design/john-giorno-retrospective-ugo-rondinone-i-heart-john-giorno-across-new-york.html [both accessed 15 March 2019].