Interview with Rishi Dastidar

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’m old enough to be a digital immigrant; I grew up in a house with one landline phone, and multiple extensions. Just after British Telecom had been privatised, the behemoth wanted to show that it was heading into the bright new future with phones that were modern and slick. So we got a new one which was … made of cheap plastic, burnt umber in colour, and cream buttons that were too small to press. I don’t remember spending much time on it; but then I was a teenage boy, and who calls teenage boys?

My first summer job was working in a mobile phone shop in Borehamwood, just down the road from where EastEnders is filmed. I was in the back, sending out mobile phones that been bought by mail order; my main memory of that time is the plastic of the delivery bags I was putting the phones into, slippery to touch, in a livid green and yellow hue. I was allowed out sometimes to man the front desk; I think I might have even once got Adam Woodyatt a pair of headphones. I’m pretty sure the whole outfit was a front for some criminal activity.

I’ve also spent a lot of time in my professional life creating communications for one of the big mobile phone brands, the blue one with bubbles. So I’ve almost come to believe the tales I’ve spun about how it is better when we are connected, over the airwaves, through these future obelisks – do you ever think about how you’re carrying a micro-coffin of silicon and cobalt around with you? I miss how we used to call them candy bars and flip phones. Now they’re utilities, and not as much fun.

But who knew that talk would be the last thing we would do with them? Turns out we didn’t really want hot media that forced us to be there in the moment with another person at the other end. Asynchrony is everyone’s superpower, where with a delay we can present the best version of ourselves, and get the response we truly want. We are bad at improvising I guess, Cyrano in our heads, stammering Rigsbys if forced to chat without preparation. Not that I can I say I miss it: one of the reasons I failed to become a journalist was that I absolutely could not pick up the phone, call a stranger and get a word out of them. I remember my body shaking as I was dialling. Now I mostly associate a ring with bad news. I wish that weren’t the case. So maybe my poem is an attempt to make a positive case for connection through conversation again.

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 actually started with Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, and especially her sections on Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz. I had completely forgotten Warhol’s devotion to the phone both as an idea and an object; his way of bringing people close to him, but also keeping them far enough away. Intimacy but not intimacy. A quote from his diary, about the phone: 

Somebody gave me this telephone… I think it was Edie… yeah it was Edie… and she said I could talk to God with it, but uh… I don’t have anything to say… so here… this is for you… now you can talk to God.

And of course he had painted one, an earlier object image, in the same vein of the Campbell’s soup tin or Brillo box. The shape of this phone is what is powering a lot of my poem, the circles and concavities, and some of the lines of shading put me in mind of fingerprints, hence the whorls.

Of course what this phone doesn’t have is a rotary dial, so I have taken an imaginative leap here; my main memory of using them is how, if you left your finger in the number too long, it would almost snap your finger back as it spun round; I wanted that idea of breaking into the cage, of suggesting that it’s worth doing something that might feel scary but it turns out it isn’t – the conversation, with its risks and dangers, is actually worth it. 

Wojnarowicz, in his memoir Close to The Knives, provided the best summary of that upside: 

In loving him, I saw a cigarette between the fingers of a hand, smoke blowing backwards into the room and sputtering planes diving low through the clouds. In loving him, I saw men encouraging each other to lay down their arms. In loving him, I saw small-town laborers creating excavations that other men spend their lives trying to fill. In loving him, I saw moving films of stone buildings; I saw a hand in prison dragging snow in from the sill. In loving him, I saw great houses being erected that would soon slide into the waiting and stirring seas. I saw him freeing me from the silences of the interior life.

I felt the quote really sums up what the phone can do, if we’re brave enough to talk.

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? 

None really: a poem has to work when it hits the air, whether there’s something there to record it or not. If the words are gripping enough, people will listen however they’re delivered. 

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? 

It’s made me feel … nostalgic, for want of a better word. That poetry has seemed so perfect a way to celebrate telephony has made me think that phoning people really is going the way of the dodo. And of course, while intellectually I know that older medias never die, are just displaced, there’s something about it being poetry to think about phones that means that the cutting edge of progress has moved somewhere else … This isn’t a bad thing of course; but it’s made me realise that even neophiliacs (which I think of myself as) get old. But the process has also revealed that poetry is a great – the best? – medium for telling alternative histories of ideas, objects and technologies – impressions are often the best way to get to the lived truth that we know but struggle to say.

Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?

Only that it’s been a great project and process, and there should be more poetic engagements with technology like it.

May 2020