Step inside a paneled room, where windows separate private from public. A black handset ready for use, the dial turns round and round. A tone rings once, twice … there’s someone on the line. Poetry picks up.
Are you listening?
These days, rotary phones are far and few between, but MOXI’s latest installation brings the 1970s to Santa Barbara. This is the Telepoem Booth, an interactive exhibit where new and old technologies combine as art. Inside the decommissioned booth, as well as at an ADA-accessible kiosk, visitors can dial up one of 80 poems.
“This takes an older technology and totally reimagines what it can do,” said Sean O’Brien, MOXI director of exhibits. “It’s delivering poetry as you dial in, but it’s actually using really modern equipment to create that experience. What a neat idea.”
Numbers can be found within a “telepoem” phonebook. Using the artist’s area code, last name, and poem title, each number is specific to the piece. After dialing, a poet’s voice comes through the line, reading a work for whomever will listen.
At 805-765-6688, guests connect to “A Mouthful of Air,” by Santa Barbara Laureate Sojourner Kincaid Rolle. Or they can call 805-782-4784 for David Starkey’s, “Is There Anyone There?”
Flipping through the directory, 805 appears time and time again, but that’s no coincidence. This exhibit is locally sourced, giving Santa Barbara artists a platform to be heard.
“The vision has always been to collect community voices from every geographical area the booth has appeared,” said Elizabeth Hellstern, the Santa Fe-based artist who originated the project. “People can listen to local poetry but look up other directories when they get curious. We’re connecting communities through the booth.”
A few years ago, the concept came as an epiphany to Ms. Hellstern. As a writer, she wanted to bring literature to life, as well as satisfy her fascination with vintage technology. Jumping on the idea, Ms. Hellstern took to Craigslist.
After a six-week search, Ms. Hellstern secured a phone booth, but it needed an upgrade. Rotary phones use pulse dialing, where short pulses are used to relay numbers. Today, cellphones rely on digital technology, a very different form of communication.
Eventually, with the help of a computer programmer, Ms. Hellstern found a way to bridge the old with the new. In 2016, the Telepoem Booth came together for the first time, making its debut in Meza. Arizona. Since then, 11 installations have appeared across the country, including permanent exhibits at State College, Pennsylvania, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
As more booths pop up, Ms. Hellstern has the same focus – accessibility. These exhibits bring poetry to an unexpecting audience, through a medium that requires interaction.
“The telephone booth is something you don’t see anymore, something that contains a lot of emotional involvement,” said Ms. Hellstern. “You have to have money in your pocket and a phone number memorized. It’s a really intense communication device.”
For those who remember rotary phones, interaction comes in the form of nostalgia.
“I love it because I can’t get these anymore,” said Janis McDonough, chaperone for a local school group. “I get excited when I see them. It’s just a nostalgic feeling when the buttons go in.”
Others see the exhibit as a change of pace, like 22-year-old Anika Backelin-Harrison, who works at MOXI. Ms. Backelin-Harrison used a rotary phone when she was little but forgot what they were like.
“It was very sweet to be able to call and hear a poem,” said Ms. Backelin-Harrison. “To just sit and let everything else go away.”
Even kids took part in the fun. Not knowing what to expect, they couldn’t wait to take a turn in the booth.
“Usually when I go to museums, I can’t touch anything,” said Frances McDonough. “I liked that I could actually play with (the phone).”
No matter the generation, each visitor leaves the exhibit different than before. And at the core of this experience is poetry. Once they’ve learned how to dial or remember what it was like, guests take that private moment to hear a poem never heard before.
“My hope is that people who would otherwise never encounter poetry find something that really resonated with them,” said Ms. Hellstern. “And that whatever they heard made their day better.”
MOXI hopes the Telepoem Booth not only makes an impact, but also inspires curiosity. Behind the exhibit, guests are encouraged to write their own piece. Placed on a poetry wall, haikus and free verse poems provide a backdrop to the booth.
Among the submissions, one haiku seemed particularly fitting.
“My day at MOXI,
So many creative minds,
Young and old alike.”
The installation will continue through Jan. 26.