There are many things we can access on our phones: fitness apps, cat videos, guided meditations…But how about some fantastic poetry? Calling the World is the work of the New York-based group Saint Flashlight, devoted to sharing poetry in fresh, 21st-century ways. In these complicated times, being able to dial in and hear a few minutes of beautiful, moving verse can provide a much-needed respite — and reset. CultureSonar had the chance to talk with Saint Flashlight’s Molly Gross and Drew Pisarra about the project.
CultureSonar: So give us the basic rundown on Calling the World? Who is behind it?
Molly Gross: Calling the World is Saint Flashlight’s dial-a-poem project in which listeners call 212.202.5606 [NEW YORK CITY] to access nine poems from around the world. Working with the Poetry Society of America (PSA), Drew and I curated poems from PSA’s online sound archives that include Nobel Prize winners such as Pablo Neruda (Chile) and contemporary poets like Monica de la Torre (Mexico) and Kwame Dawes (Ghana/Jamaica) as well a renowned poet riffing off of historic masters: Anne Carson (Canada) reflected on a key fragment by Sappho in her poem. At its heart, Calling the World is a prompt to stop and listen to the voices of poets and let their spirit imbue us all with a myriad of impulses — melancholy, humor, loneliness, and wisdom. Saint Flashlight’s mission is to bring what is often considered an elite, inaccessible medium to a range of people. We want everyone to feel engaged and curious, from the poetry-loving audience to someone who has had few encounters with the medium. Our drive to find new frameworks for listening is spurred on by our awareness that poetry is considered “high culture”, which often has coded barriers to entry. Our past projects include our The Lost Poem flyer which prompted the O, Miami Poetry Festival’s audiences to call in to “find” the poem and a movie haiku series installed on the Nitehawk Cinema – Prospect Park marquee. We are committed to celebrating poetry’s relevance and see each installation as an opportunity to connect the public with poetry in unexpected ways. Poetry is an essential part of human culture and we succeed when everyone listens.
CultureSonar: What role is poetry playing – or should play – in our current situation?
Drew Pisarra: There are so many aspects to our current situation, it seems impossible to imagine poetry taking on a single role. But we welcome its ability to galvanize change, to mirror and deepen experience, to offer comfort — even distraction, to memorialize, and to chronicle a time of duress and shapeshifting. As you might guess, poetry from the past can also be a good place for inspiration and reflection. I’ve got Audre Lorde’s Our Dead Behind Us on my bedside table right now. I’ve also found writing as a pathway to understanding to be a salve. But that’s nothing new.
CultureSonar: What’s the criteria – if any — for picking the poets? Any that you feel people should check out in particular (or personal favorites)?
Molly Gross: In all our projects we seek a balance, considering the mood and tone of the poem. We also pay close attention to reading styles to be sure the listening experience is a good one. In this case, we first did a lot of listening — there are hours and hours of recordings — and pulling poems we felt fit the calling in format. For example, we didn’t use poems over two minutes in length. In fact, one poem is only twelve seconds long: Ono No Komachi’s poem observing an old pine tree read by poet Jane Hirschfield. Another one of my favs is Wisława Szymborska “In Praise of My Sister” read by actor Elzbieta Czyzewska. It’s the longest poem at two minutes and is the only recording in which you can hear the live audience reacting with laughter as this poem is hilarious and poignant.
Drew Pisarra: Because of the Coronavirus, Molly and I weren’t able to sift through the Poetry Society’s entire archive in person so she focused on Soundcloud while I went to YouTube and the PSA website. Given the heavy rotation European poets get stateside, we were definitely drawn to countering this ongoing bias by ensuring we had writers from Africa and Asia too. We’re committed to acquainting listeners with poets they might not know — with all due respect to Dylan Thomas. Prior to this project, for instance, I was unfamiliar with Romeo Oriogun yet his melancholic reading of “Loneliness” was a source of welcome poignancy for me.
CultureSonar: What’s the response been like?
Molly Gross: Due to the magic of technology, we can track how many people called and for how long. It was heartening to note that over 460 callers listened throughout the month of August. Moreover many listened for several minutes. This was a kind of poetry reading, but done for each person individually! Along with our great Poetry Society partners, we promoted the series digitally with a focus on Instagram. It was a thrill to see the likes and responses on these feeds. When Copper Canyon press commented on a Poetry Society post that they “adored” the project, that made our day.
CultureSonar: What’s the next step or future plans? Any other ways you’ll be sharing (or hope to share) poetry in these complicated times?
Drew Pisarra: Although we certainly didn’t plan it this way, our next project completes our NYC Poetry Trifecta. Having had The Lost Poem at Poets House NYC and Calling the World with Poetry Society of America, we’re now in the midst of a new undertaking with The Poetry Project. This latest activation — entitled Heart on Your Sleeve and set to launch this fall — brings poetry into people’s hands and homes via coffee sleeves imprinted with epigrams by Nicole Sealey, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Rochelle Owens, and other NYC poets. Think of it as a way to sweeten your coffee without adding packets of sugar.
-The CS Team