The Telepoem Booth brings poetry to the people

(Heather Kadar Photography)

A new, rectangular feature will soon insert itself into the Santa Fe landscape. The Santa Fe Arts Commission has acquired a 1970s-era telephone booth, though it’s not much use for making supernaturally quick costume changes or even calling home—except in the metaphorical sense, maybe?—since the voice on the other end speaks only in verse.

This is the Telepoem Booth, an interactive art piece created by Cerrillos, New Mexico-based writer and artist Elizabeth Hellstern. Inside the booth are a rotary phone and a "telepoem book," a physical phonebook-esque directory that lists poets by last name and genre. Visitors can dial any number therein and hear a poem recited over the receiver.

"Having a poem read out loud by the author's voice really brings it to life, and it brings a lot of passion to the words that we might not experience if we're just reading to ourselves," Hellstern says.

Poets in Santa Fe County are invited to submit original recorded poems to be reviewed by a jury of local poets this month: Edie Tsong, Michelle Holland and Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, along with Hellstern herself. The jury then chooses 150 poems to fill up the telepoem book, and hundreds of additional non-local poems will be listed in an online directory, also available to dial in the booth. In judging the poems, the jury is looking for not only quality of writing, but quality of performance.

Skill does not equal acclaim, however; schoolchildren have been selected for past books. “There’s amateur poets, there are published poets, and I think that children are fabulous poets because they’re so receptive and observant,” Hellstern tells SFR. “The Telepoem Booth is poetry by the people for the people.” 

Suitably, the booth will dwell in the public sphere; the Arts Commission plans to install it at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center and other public sites not yet revealed. Other booths have popped up in places like State College, Pennsylvania and Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s an inanimate agitator, meant to to inject poetry into daily banality, and in doing so, Hellstern says, “insert a little magic into people’s lives.”

The deadline for submissions is midnight on Sunday July 1. Those interested can also schedule free recording sessions at Hellstern’s studio by emailing elizabeth@telepoembooth.com.

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