Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dial-A-Poem Poets: Radicalizing space with the telephone

John Giorno with the  Dial-a-Poem telephone set up in 1969
One day a New York mother saw her 12-year-old son with two friends listening to the telephone and giggling. She grabbed the phone from them and what she heard freaked her out. This was when Dial-A-Poem was at The Architectural League of New York with worldwide media coverage, and Junior Scholastic Magazine had just done an article and listening to Dial-A-Poem was homework in New York City Public Schools.” - John Giorno, August 1972

“Every faggot hiding in bar/political prisoner/Every junky shooting up in john/Political prisoner” - Diana De Prima, Revolutionary Letter No. 49
Dial a Poem began in 1968 when New York artist, actor, poet John Giorno linked up 15 connected telephones to reel-to-reel tape players and made it possible for anyone to call a telephone number and listen to a poem recited by an established, often radical, poet or author.
Millions called. "The busiest time was 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so one figured that all those people sitting at desks in New York office buildings spend a lot of time on the telephone," wrote John Giorno, the founder of Dial-A-Poem. "The second busiest time was 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. ... then the California calls and those tripping on acid or couldn't sleep, 2 a.m. to 6 a.m" (New York Times).
Comparisons with current information systems are obvious. With Dial-a-Poem a network was established that created a space for experiencing language. Along with this experience of language came a lot of assumptions about culture, often related to gender, sexuality, class, generation and political affiliation. Giorno and his associates (William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Allen Ginsburg, Diana De Prima, Clark Coolidge, Taylor Mead, Bobby Seale, Anne Waldman and Jim Carroll) created a radical space that anyone with a telephone could access.
Burroughs in his dry cackle describes an old Mexican assassin "with eyes the color of a faded gray flannel suit." Diane di Prima talks calmly about the proper use of knives and Molotov cocktails. Clark Coolidge drags out every four-letter word he can think of: taps, buns, keys, cans, arms. Taylor Mead sputters like a motorcycle. Bobby Seale charismatically hates white people, while people cheer. Ms. Waldman singsongs about her sagging spirit at age 26. Jim Carroll coolly reports how he took off his shirt, then his pants, for his coach, when he was 12, to try on a new uniform. "He told me it fit perfectly over my body" (New York Times).
The space created by sound is a space of potential dissidence. This began a long time ago. The audio of song, music, poet breaks up official space, monumental space, and gives time to the carnival or the revolution. This is why we have noise ordinances in urban spaces. To break through the wall of an apartment building with music is to reclaim space for the purposes of joy. The experiments of William S Burroughs came to similar conclusions:

“Could you cool a riot by recording the calmest cop and the most reasonable demonstrator? Maybe! However, it's a lot easier to start trouble that to stop it. Just pointing out that cut/ups on the tape recorder can be used as a weapon. You'll observe that the operators are making a cutup as they go. They are cutting in Chicago, Paris, Mexico City, Kent Ohio with the present sound effects at random and that is a cutup.” - The Electronic Revolution (

Space is communicative in media according to how it can be “tied to the relations of production and to the ‘order’ which those relations impose, and hence to knowledge, to signs, to codes, and to ‘frontal’ relations” (Lefebvre 33). In the design of digital narrative works on the World Wide Web similar relationships between signifying elements in space, such as emphasized structures, repeated components and specific perspectives, make up this communication. In this sense the signs and codes that operate in space form a symbolic order in the digital works. The reading subject can only approach the works according to these codes, which compose “the locus of communication by means of signs, as the locus of separation and the milieu of prohibitions” (Lefebvre 134-135). The interpretive responses to these signs inevitably call upon a separation, an interpretive distance and as a result a set of prohibitions, between the reader and the work. With Dial-a-Poem the radical space of the poet has admitted you the listener for the duration of the telephone call. [1]
Prohibitions are encoded into representational space. Thomas Nolden clarifies this further:

For Lefebvre, ‘frontal relations’ of production codify power relations, for example, in the form of buildings or public monuments: ‘Such frontal (and hence brutal) expressions of these relations do not completely crowd out their more clandestine or underground aspects; all power must have its accomplices – and its police’ (33) (Nolden 128).

This is representational space, which Lefebvre defines “as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’. [...] Thus representational spaces may be said, though again with certain exceptions, to tend towards more or less coherent systems of non-verbal symbols and signs” (Lefebvre 39). Similar representational space exists in digitally mediated narrative as “non-verbal symbols and signs”, which evoke “not ‘stories’ but suggestive markings” and “trigger reactions in players in order to help them to create their own interpretations” (Nitsche 44). These ‘suggestive markings’ I equate with the dry rattle of Bill Burroughs' voice as he speaks of hipster junky life in Mexico in the 1950s, the excited chant of Ginsberg, and the echo of De Prima as she tells you where you are; “Every faggot hiding in bar/political prisoner/Every junky shooting up in john/Political prisoner”. You are in the same prison she is in, and that which connects you both is the telephone and the voice you hear holding it to your ear. Like the visiting rooms in prison they show in the movies on TV, but only now you are there holding the phone and listening.

Works Cited
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Basil-Blackwell, 2007.

Nolden, Thomas. “On Colonial Spaces and Bodies: Hans Grimm’s Geschichten und Südwestafrika.” The Imperialist Imagination: German colonialism and its legacy. Ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer. Sara Lennox, Susanne Zantop. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 125-141. Print.

NOTE: On Saturday 26 June 2013 at 20:00 GMT I speak in a BBC4 Radio documentary on the Dial a Poem poets along with,
Brian Patten, one of the original Liverpool poets, explores how radical, subversive and occasionally risqué poetry - rooted in the counter-culture of the late 1960s - became available to a mass audience at the end of a phone line for the first time.
I also understand the great biographer and friend of Burroughs and Gysin, Barry Miles is included in the program. You can tune in online here: 

[1] Interpretation, linguistic or spatial, always includes the possibility of misreading. Interpretation is structured toward multiplicity and the digital works are no different. I do not need to account for my readings as preeminently correct’, merely demonstrate how narrative can be read and how the digital works attempt to guide this reading.

No comments: