Interview with Janet McAdams

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?

I’ve always, since an early age, been a bit of a phone junkie. I think it’s a particular sort of introversion, a way the self can travel while leaving the body behind for a while. I am old enough to have grown up in a house with a single landline, and I used to get in trouble for dominating the phone. That said, I am still resistant to carrying a phone around with me all the time. The ways that spatial and temporal realms line up or collide was certainly a subtext in writing the poem. Here, it’s the phone that’s fixed, the spatial that’s stable, and the temporal that’s anything but linear. Instead, it’s layered, circular, disrupted almost to the point of chaos.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

The poem is very much rooted in autobiography, in particular, the dementia my mother suffered leading up to her death three years ago. The telephone proved to be a lifeline for her. Vascular dementia is a particularly cruel condition; its victims know something is very wrong and their anxiety and sense of displacement is profound. My siblings and I – there are five of us – telephoned her frequently. She didn’t always know our faces but she knew our voices.

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?

I have been working on a group of poems about my mother’s illness. I wrote the poem for this project, and it is the second one in which a telephone is a key player. In the other, it is the mother making the call, trying to find someone who will drive her home, with home being the childhood home that no longer exists. A poem, of course, has a will of its own and doesn’t necessarily do what we ask it to. Nonetheless, as the poem unfolded, I liked the parallel between the intimacy of the daughter speaking sotto voce from the garage and the intimacy between the poet and a single listener in a phone booth.

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?

The project has prompted me to think about the difference between poem as phone call and poem as voice mail. And not just in terms of process, audience and genre but also the politics of each. What can be commodified and what can resist commodification? How do we speak to each other? How do we listen?

May 2020