He’s a poet and the FBI know it: how John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem alarmed the Feds

‘A poignant expression of the need and loneliness of people’ … John Giorno’s Dial-A-Poem in 1970.

“In 1968, the poet and visual artist John Giorno was on the telephone when he was hit with an idea. It came to him that ‘the voice was the poet, the words were the poem, and the telephone was the venue’. He imagined utilising the telephone as a medium of mass communication, in order to generate a new relationship between poet and audience. This would become Dial-a-Poem: one telephone number that anyone could call, 24/7, and listen to a random recorded poem – liberating spoken poetry from what Giorno termed ‘the sense-deadening lecture hall situation’. As part of New York’s avant garde scene, he quickly enlisted talent, tape-recording the likes of John Ashbery, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman and David Henderson reading poems at 222 Bowery, his loft. He found a project sponsor, 10 answering machines fitted with these recordings were patched together and connected to phone lines and Dial-a-Poem went live. … I first dialled while walking around the park, in a leather jacket, in the rain. One of Giorno’s own poems played down the line. He read: ‘Big fat raindrops bejewelled with radioactivity soaked into this black leather jacket.’ It was a thrilling, uniquely poetic moment of synchronicity – and I was hooked. I called while in the supermarket and got Denise Levertov. I called while brushing my teeth, and got Tom Weatherly. Dialling a poem is a weirdly intimate experience – vaguely voyeuristic, clandestine, as if the poets are directly addressing you, to confess, shock or enlighten, while you remain anonymous. … Dial-a-Poem received more than a million calls before it lost funding and ended in 1971. There were complaints of indecency, claims that the poems incited violence. The FBI investigated, and, in Giorno’s words – an observation that seems to prove Dial-a-Poem’s cultural worth – ‘the trustees [were] beginning to freak out’. Afterwards, Giorno produced a series of LPs featuring the Dial-a-Poets. In the liner notes of one, he wrote: ‘We used the telephone for poetry. They used it to spy on you’, referencing the not-unfounded surveillance paranoia of the Watergate era. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but reminds us of the vulnerability and value of intimate and unmediated exchanges between artist and audience.”
BOMB: John Giorno’s Archives – A selection curated by Marcia Bassett

Flier for John Giorno Machine Readings Stop at Fischbach Gallery, October 27, 1966. Photo taken at the Chelsea Hotel by Gysin (reflected in the mirror, holding the camera).

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