New exhibit revives Dial-a-Poem — a free poetry hotline once investigated by the FBI
'It became a cultural phenomenon,' says John Giorno Foundation director Elizabeth Dee
John Giorno didn't have access to the best technology when he started. Nothing more than a couple of answering machines patched together to a phone line. But he had access to the most avant garde poets of his generation — and that made "Dial-A-Poem" revolutionary.
The late New York-based poet and artist launched his free poetry service in 1969. The 24-hour hotline featured poems read by legendary poets like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, and Patti Smith.
At its peak, "Dial-A-Poem" brought in millions of callers and put such a strain on the Upper East Side telephone exchange that it caught the ear of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Through the years, the service has gone through different iterations and numbers. And now, as part of a posthumous exhibition of Giorno's work, a new phone line has been launched in London, England.
Elizabeth Dee is the director of The John Giorno Foundation. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the history of "Dial-A-Poem" and the new exhibition. Here is part of their conversation.
What kind of reaction are you getting to Dial-A-Poem in the U.K.?
It's been a phenomenal first week of the launch. We've had maybe about 12 news outlets report on it, looking at, the significance of Dial-A-Poem. And I do believe the British public really respects and understands the tradition that John is working in. There's just been a phenomenal response.
Can you describe what it was like, how John Giorno set up "Dial-A-Poem" back in 1969?
I think we forget, in the comfort of the technology that's available to us now, how difficult it was to do things. Particularly things that were outside the box and things that were innovative and new. So what John had to do was to work with the phone company. He had to have multiple lines, and multiple playback machines that were at the station where the phone lines would come in.
So it was almost like going to a train station — Grand Central Station — to set up these recording devices that would be triggered by a phone ringing on multiple lines. So it was very complex, very complicated. It also broke down a lot. So John would actually have to go to the call centre every day, sometimes multiple times a day, because he was also committed to this idea of random response. That if you called several times in the day, you would always get something new. You would never have a repeat of a performance or a poem.
So that also added to this complexity, but also to his engagement with the technology.
I understand that at the time, in 1969, the volume of people calling in to "Dial-A-Poem" was so large that the telephone exchange of the Upper East Side of New York couldn't cope with it. So how popular was it?
It was unbelievably popular. More than a million people called the line. It became a cultural phenomenon. It was featured in Time magazine and other major mainstream publications.
For the avant garde in downtown New York to break into this mainstream conversation was quite rare. It ended up resulting in the work being shown in the seminal MoMA exhibition in 1970 called "Information," which also featured John and other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, and others, who were innovating the technology of the time.
And the FBI determined that there is something subversive about this, right? How did the FBI become begin to monitor "Dial-A-Poem?"
That's one of the most fascinating parts of the story.
We have to remember that in 1970, when MoMA was doing this "Information" show, there was in the country a real sense of distrust of government and a real schism. We had the McCarthyism not so far in the distance, this fear about communism.
But we don't know why the FBI started to investigate "Dial-A-Poem" at the Museum of Modern Art. We do have the ephemera. We have the director's letter to the trustees saying we have been investigated by the FBI because of John Giorno's "Dial-A-Poem" and they are wondering if it's subversive or anti-government. And this is why the institution supports this freedom of discussion. And we're continuing to support these artists who, you know, are really trying to build a broader conversation.
So I think this is just really indicative of the times that we're in. And John really liked all aspects of the reaction, you know, both in that sense and also in terms of people participating. He really thought of his work as a social practice.
He was an optimist without being an idealist. He truly understood the nature of human beings and their politic. And he really thought that, you know, by working through and together with other artists, that those conversations could be bridged.
So, you know, it's interesting. We're not entirely sure. But it's been a fascinating part of that chapter, and it really kind of adds to the significance of the work over time.
You can understand why, in 1969, this was so phenomenal. But why now? Why do you think it is taking off in the U.K.?
It's fascinating to me. I think it's a combination of things. I think we are in a different but not dissimilar political moment, where there is a divisiveness. There's a schism between points of view, politically.
I think that there is a fascination with media that disappears or isn't trackable. And there is something about the fact that you can call "Dial-A-Poem" now in the U.K. and also in the U.S. [where it has been operating off and on since 1969]. And, you know, receive a poem that you may never be able to hear again. You could call it a thousand times and not necessarily get the same piece.
And so, there is this fascination with somehow, in the time of surveillance and technology, this being a technology that still gives someone some form of freedom.
And we've also just come out of the pandemic and lockdowns where people had a lot of time. It was a time of isolation. So the idea of being alone and making these phone calls was a way to reach out and touch art in a living, breathing way.
And I think it was really such an important thing for us to bring that forward and to kind of re-engage John's work, particularly at this moment in time.
Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. Q&A edited for length and clarity.