New Gallery for Woodberry Poetry

A new installation at the Lamont Woodberry Poetry Room commemorates a time in Cambridge history when one could dial ‘617-492-1144’ and hear anyone from Allen Ginsberg to the Pope read a poem out loud.

A gathering on Thursday kicked off the spring 2013 season at the Woodberry Poetry Room, whose new gallery features archived recordings and other paraphernalia from the “Phone-A-Poem” service that operated out of Cambridge for 25 years from 1976 to 2001. Visitors can sit down and hear, in addition to the beats and the beatified, Donald Hall ’51, Jane Kenyon, Ifeanyi Menkiti, James Tate, and others. The “Phone-A-Poem” exhibit will be on display until May.

“The idea was to liberate poems, take them out of books and libraries,” said Peter Payack, the Cambridge-based poet and writer who first conceived of the project in 1976. “I think some people would be intimidated to go to a poetry reading—I know I used to be. This way, it was like a conversation, and if you didn’t like the poem you could hang up.”

The exhibit attests to the relative fame the project achieved. At one point, the project’s coordinators reached an agreement with Out of Town News to have poetry readings and bands perform on the roof, and a scrolling sign that wrapped around the stand displayed poems by local schoolchildren. One week, the service featured a recording from the Pope and received over 25,000 calls.

“It seems hard to believe, but at the time all of this technology was completely novel,” said Christina Davis, the curator of the Poetry Room.

Payack and Roland F. Pease, a publisher who became involved in the project, sent out postcards to poets they liked. Each card contained just two checkboxes to indicate whether the poet wanted to be involved in the project or not.

“If they said yes, I sent a cassette,” said Pease. “Almost everyone agreed.”

GSAS art history student Camran J. Mani came across the poster for the event and attended on a whim. “I liked it,” said Mani. “It feels very intimate to hear [a poem] on the phone.”

“Phone-A-Poem” eventually stopped in 2001, when it gradually became redundant because advent of the internet. The resources it had accumulated went to Emerson College, where it soon died out after a few years.

“I wanted to put poetry out there for everyone to experience,” said Payack. “Now [the project] is here and I’m thrilled.”

—Staff writer Yen H. Pham can be reached at yenpham@college.harvard.edu.

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