Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?
This is not my first time to write poetry for telephones, to participate telephonically in a ‘crossed lines’ project. In 2007, I collaborated with the Tijuana poetry collective, La Línea, writing and performing a poem for them in ‘La primavera de los poetas’ Festival in Monterrey, Mexico. I wrote a poem that was featured in the 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival Mobile Textualism Anthology. I consider my most sustained and most significant experiment with writing poetry for telephones, however, to be my contributions to the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT). Circa 2009, I joined the artivist collective Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 to coproduce TBT. We began to repurpose inexpensive used mobile phones, outfitting them with an applet designed to lead the user to water and safety sites on the US side of the Mexico-US border. As the project evolved, we repeatedly queried, ‘What constitutes sustenance?’ Recalling Audre Lorde’s observation that ‘poetry is not a luxury,’ we added poems as audio files to the project’s code. I wrote two series of poetry for this express purpose. While I can’t put my finger on specifics, all of the above informed my contribution to Crossed Lines.
How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?
Currently, I am writing a collection of poetry that, among other things, examines, engages, finds solace in, aspires to forge solidarities with Greater Mexican muralism/s. In Autumn 2019 I moved to New York City and began teaching literature and creative writing at The New School. In 1931, The New School invited José Clemente Orozco to produce a mural for one of the university’s buildings. Orozco’s contribution, located at 66 West 12th Street, is the only extant work of Mexican muralism in New York City. Drawing less attention to itself, a decommissioned phone booth occupies the same floor as Orozco’s project. Although the booth’s hinged door still opens, no telephone is attached to its interior. Before Sarah and Sam invited me to participate in Crossed Lines, I’d planned to write a poem about Orozco’s mural sequence for The New School. I’d also already imagined that the nearby phone booth would make an appearance in the poem. I’ve long been interested in improbable connections across spacetime, about expansive configurations of collectivity. In the latter spirit, it didn’t feel like a stretch to imagine Orozco’s and John Giorno’s efforts in conversation (especially after Sam responded enthusiastically to the idea).
I had been reading about Orozco’s murals at The New School. I’d first consulted a trio of essays in the catalog I stand in my place with my own day here. Site-Specific Art at The New School (2019). From there I’d turned to the catalog José Clemente Orozco in the United States, 1927-1934 (2002), in particular Diane Miliotes’s essay, ‘The Murals at the New School for Social Research (1930-31).’ I’d also visited the murals several times. I had a general sense of Giorno’s work; post-invitation, I began to further research his efforts. I focused first on Dial-A-Poem, reviewing its history, listening to installments from the project on UbuWeb. The title of my contribution to Crossed Lines refers to a remark the poet made about Giorno Poetry Systems. Giorno observed, ‘In 1965, the idea occurred to me that a poet can connect to an audience using all the entertainments of ordinary life: watching television, listening to albums, radio, and the telephone.’ Giorno’s commitments to a democratization of poetry are evident across his practice. I turned to online reviews and documentation of the artist Ugo Rondinone’s presentation in thirteen Manhattan venues of the work of his life partner, Giorno. Entitled I ♥ John Giorno the sprawling exhibit – divided into eighteen chapters – functioned as a retrospective and homage. It included paintings, prints, films, sound installations and drawings by Giorno and work that reflects his influence. I was particularly drawn to printed aphorisms by Giorno whose meanings sometimes double as they transition from one color of ink to another. I quote some of those two-tone (red and black) ‘poems’ in my contribution to Crossed Lines.
How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?
The question of the visual and sonic reproducibility of my Crossed Lines contribution was never far from my mind when writing and designing the poem. In my practice, I have long toggled between the prose poem and visual/concrete poetry. I also am a researcher of contemporary Greater Mexican art, cinema and literature. Because ‘The Table of Universal Brotherhood’ figures so prominently in Orozco’s mural composition, I couldn’t imagine my contribution to Crossed Lines devoid of any reference to the latter. I visualized the long table – a rectangle marked by the ‘x’ of ‘crossed lines’ that occupies the poem’s center – as also conjuring a red telephone booth and Giorno graphics. Still, I wondered, would the visual disturbance of the poem be reproducible on a mobile app? (Accurately sounding its presence seemed out/side of the question.) I concluded that my design would have to be abstract enough to absorb its own scaling up and down. When performing, I usually read quickly, but I recognized that phone listeners might not appreciate recorded acceleration. In the eleventh hour, my own body emerged as an unlikely poetic constraint. A week and a half before the audio files were due, my son and I came down with the flu. If you listen closely, you can hear the effect in my voice and the poem’s pace.
Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?
Previously I had not spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship of poetry and telephony in either my own or others’ efforts (granted I have a working knowledge of texts on writing, technology, and post/modernities/modernisms). But, as sometimes happens, when I began to focus on relationships (in the plural) between poetry and telephony, I couldn’t not see, hear, smell, touch, taste, sense (as in sixth) the pair’s sustained connections. Moreover, relationality, broadly conceived, snowballed; one example leading to another. Consider, how I pre-wrote my contribution to Crossed Lines: Sitting down to take notes (the morning after a conversation with Sam), I recalled that I’d meant to read Ariana Reines’s Telephone (2018). Reines’s play in turn returned me to Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (1989). Ronell’s text redirected my attention to Jacques Derrida’s Carte postale (1980) (more specifically to the effect of a ringing telephone on Derrida’s concentration). A story-approaching-legend of my partner and collaborator Ricardo Dominguez crossed my mind – an intercontinental line of thought. I quote (with Ricardo’s permission):
I was working at Rubyfruit Books in Tallahassee, Florida… I met some graduate students…. We were partying on a Friday or Saturday night… At the time, I was reading Derrida… A young woman at the party who’d studied the summer before at the Sorbonne had Derrida’s phone number. In unison, we exclaimed, ‘Let’s call him collect!… But, who should we say is calling?… Let’s say it’s Martini Heidegger!’ The operator put the call through. Derrida answered, incredulous. ‘Martin Heidegger?’ ‘No, Martini Heidegger.’ After some back and forth, he refused the call. Years later, I ran across a lengthy footnote in the English translation of The Postcard detailing our ontological prank.
I must note it right here, on the morning of 22 August 1979, 10 A.M., while typing this page for the present publication, the telephone rings. The U.S. operator asks me if I accept a ‘collect call’ from Martin (she says Martini or martini) Heidegger. I heard, as one often does in these situations which are very familiar to me, having to call ‘collect’ myself, voices that I thought I recognized on the other end of the intercontinental line, listening to me and watching my reaction. What will he do with the ghost or Geist of Martin? I cannot summarize here the chemistry of the calculation that very quickly made me refuse (‘It’s a joke, I do not accept’) after having had the name Martini Heidegger repeated several times, hoping that the author of the farce would finally name himself. Who pays, in sum, the addressee or the sender? who is to pay? This is a very difficult question, but this morning I thought I should not pay, at least not otherwise than by adding this note of thanks. I know that I will be suspected of making it all up, since it is too good to be true. But what can I do? It is true, rigorously, from start to finish, the date, the time, the content, etc. Heidegger’s name was already written, after ‘Freud,’ in the letter that I am in the course of transcribing on the typewriter. This is true, and moreover demonstrable, if one wishes to take the trouble of inquiring: there are witnesses and a postal archive of the thing. I call upon these witnesses (these waystations between Heidegger and myself) to make themselves known… (21)
While I hardly imagine Ricardo or myself to be ‘waystations between Heidegger and [Derrida],’ I do wish to take the trouble to verify the veracity of Derrida’s account of ‘telephonic communication with Heidegger’s ghost.’ Alternately, as citation accumulates, how can one not trace – by way of an anecdotal, associative logic – intimate and far-flung kinships between poetry and telephony, writing and technology?
Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?
I am grateful that Crossed Lines afforded me the opportunity to re/acquaint myself with Giorno’s sizeable body of work. Inspired by that work, I included selections from Dial-A-Poem on one of my class syllabi this semester. En route from that class to another (before teaching migrated Spring 2020 into the virtual realm), I realized that for months I’d been hurrying past one of Giorno’s poem-prints as if it were my own personal ‘purloined letter.’ Set against a cheery yellow background, half of the text in neon tangerine is rescaled in lemon meringue. From Giorno’s On the Bowery (1971) portfolio, the serigraph’s actual content – less cheery – staccato-stutters to wince: ‘A youth/ winces/ in pain/ in pain/ after being/ struck/ after being struck/ by birdshot/ pellets/ by birdshot pellets/ from a policeman’s/ gun/ from a policeman’s gun/ during/ the Berkeley/ riot/ during the Berkeley riot.’ One of the things I ♥ about this poem: Giorno neither chooses nor asks us to choose between site, sight, sound; politics, ethics, aesthetics. In my own contribution to Crossed Lines, I aspired to approximate a compatible level of non-decision, a decisiveness in its own right.