Poetry Friday: Virtual Telepoem Booth

May 1, 2020

In this week’s installment of Poetry Friday, we bring back Elizabeth Hellstern, inventor of the Telepoem Booth, a vintage rotary phone booth where you can dial numbers from a directory and listen to recorded poems. To date, Elizabeth has curated more than a dozen Telepoem Booth installations across the country and recorded nearly a thousand poets reading their work. She has a new book out called, Missed Calls and Other Poetry. It was supposed to coincide with the opening of more Telepoem Booths, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put that on hold for public safety reasons. So, Elizabeth has created an interactive online project to experience the Telepoem Booths while they’re temporarily shut down. Here is Elizabeth Hellstern, with poets Chris Green and Jesse Sensibar, in this week’s Poetry Friday segment.  


EH: With the COVID-19 pandemic, and social distancing, and everybody’s awareness of spreading germs and viruses, people are not able to use the Telepoem Booth right now. So, we’ve run with the ball, and we’ve taken and mirrored the interactivity of the Telepoem Booth and created a new book called Telepoem Booth: Missed Calls and Other Poetry, which you can read essays about phone booth memories from Telepoets across the U.S., and we’ve put recordings of the poetry online at telepoembooth.com. So, we’re bringing the audio recording to peoples’ homes so that they can listen online to recordings of their favorite Telepoets. We’re mirroring the interactivity of the Telepoem Booth, but in the safety of peoples’ homes.

Inventor, artist and poet Elizabeth Hellstern with her Telepoem Booth

One of the poets collected in this book is Chris Green from Chicago, Illinois. He’s been an original Telepoet from the start, so I’m really happy to have his essay and poem in the book. The poem is also produced by Dr. Mark Neumann who works at NAU and is a mentor to me and helped me conceive and conceptualize the Telepoem Booth idea from the beginning.

A Kind of Cavalry, by Chris Green, produced by Mark Neumann

Jesus walks in to this ATM vestibule at Citibank on Michigan Avenue.

Jesus Christ carrying an actual cross, a bit longer than he is tall,

And wearing a real crown of thorns, punches in his secret code,

And then turns to me,

As disbelieving as anyone at a cash machine might be and says,

“I hate this [expletive] thing.”

Unable to speak, I strain to see what his balance might be,

Hoping that, bravely, he’s been saving.

The machine gives nothing away,

Careful to postpone judgement for another day.

‘Sorry. Your request cannot be processed at this time.’

Chicago-based poet Chris Green
Credit Poetry Foundation

Temporarily at a loss, he seems to search himself for a pocket.

First his nakedness, then the rags around his waist.

Pissed, he presses the meaningless receipt into his palm,

Picks up his cross, and carries himself back into the street.

EH: We also have another poem by Jesse Sensibar who is from Flagstaff. He is an original gangster for the Telepoem Booth and has probably the most poems in the Telepoem Booth directory out of all of my poets.

This poem is produced by Margo McClellan who is from Flagstaff, as well.

Waiting, by Jesse Sensibar

I know what it feels like to wait.

Not the waiting like you do at Motor Vehicles,

Or the waiting for the sun to rise

That goes with a tin cup of steaming black coffee in your hands

At a sheep camp somewhere in one of the sky islands of New Mexico.

Not even that interminable wait for Christmas to come,

The year when you were 7 years old.

The wait that starts about the same time as your school does in September,

Before the leaves have even begun to change,

And stretches all the way to the end of December.

I know what it feels like to wait so long

You forget over the years you are even waiting,

Except that every once in a while,

You catch yourself looking out the window

To see if they’ve finally returned.

I waited.

I waited a solid twenty like that.

I waited forever.

It was not a bad wait.

Like I said, most of the time you just go through life

Not even remembering that you are still waiting.

You live your life,

Work a job,

Have failed relationships,

Make coffee every morning,

Go to bed some nights.

Flagstaff-based poet Jesse Sensibar
Credit Jesse Sensibar

You live in the same house.

Over the years you paint it different colors.

You finally settle on purple,

Not because it is your favorite color,

But because you know that she knows that it is your favorite color.

If she ever comes back to town and decides to drive by the house,

You want her to know you are still there.

In your bedroom with the chilte pine floor,

Through a tiny doorway your shoulders do not fit through,

Is a long, narrow closet filled with clolsety-things.

At the back of that closet,

Behind a row of shirts with dust on the shoulders you never wear,

On hangers that never move,

Is a picture frame full of photographs of the three of you.

Along with the photographs

Is a small handwritten note on blue-lined paper.

In hurried pint all it says is, ‘Please leave us alone.’

Poetry Friday is produced by KNAU's Gillian Ferris. If you have an idea for a segment, drop her an email at Gillian.Ferris@nau.edu.