Heather Christie launches new book by offering one-to-one readings over the phone

It’s one way to connect with your fans: poet Heather Christle is launching her new collection by offering readers the opportunity to give her a call and hear her read a poem.

The American author, whose poems have appeared in the New Yorker, has just published her second collection, The Trees The Trees, and rather than relying on the usual publicity tour, has decided instead to list her phone number on her website. At set times every day until 14 July she will read a poem to anyone who calls her.

“The book itself is full of references to phones and phone calls, and the speaker often seems to mistake the technology of the page for that of the telephone, imagining that the reader is right there in the moment,” said Christle. “My father is a merchant mariner, and when my sister and I were small we would record messages to him on cassette tapes. I’d often ask questions and then pause for his response. There’s something so lovely and sad about the hope that another actual person is on the other end of any technology. So I thought it would be interesting to bring that dynamic forward, to read these poems (which frequently address a ‘you’) directly to another person, across the intimate distance a telephone creates.”

So far she has received around 60 calls, from a multitude of different readers, from a couple from Toronto looking for a love poem to a class in western Massachusetts. “I’ve been amazed at how variously people respond. Some callers state quickly that they’re calling for a poem, listen, say thank you, and then promptly hang up. Others want to chat a little bit about the project. I love it when people tell me where they’re calling from. One man called on his break from work, which made me glow. If people seem chatty I’ll often tell them where I am as well, because I think it’s exciting to know that the poem they just heard was read in the middle of the shampoo aisle at the supermarket,” Christie said.

“I didn’t feel particularly anxious ahead of time. I trust poetry to make good things happen, and so far that’s been the case. When I was writing these poems I so often had this mysterious ‘you’ just in front of me, just behind the page. When people call it’s as if that imagined figure has suddenly come to life.”

At literature blog HTML Giant, which called the collection “unprecedented, and gorgeous”, readers described their experience of the calls. “It works. I felt a little creepy calling it, like I got the number off a restroom wall. She read ‘My Enemy’, and I’m sold. A great idea,” said one. “When I dialled I was like ‘can’t believe it’s dialling, someone smart is going to be on this phone in 10 seconds’ then it was awkward and I didn’t know what to say and said something stupid and then asked her to read my favourite poem from the book (‘That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring’) … keep thinking how something as stupidly simple as using a phone for what it’s meant to be used for can be so awesome and heartwarming,” said another.

The Trees The Trees is published by small press Octopus Books. Christle said that she couldn’t take full credit for the phone-a-poet idea, pointing to Frank O’Hara’s Personism, about which he wrote “it was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realising that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born”.

“This isn’t the most terribly original idea,” said Christle. “Another antecedent I should mention is the ‘Dial-a-Poem’ project, started by John Giorno in the late 60s, though that featured recordings, rather than live readings.”

From “Plus One” by Heather Christie

I lost my phone    I am using the baby monitor instead    it’s in
the flowers    nobody’s calling    but I know that some day you will
it’s just plain math    love is never more than an extension of

From “Our Sense of Achievement” by Heather Christie

every day many things do not happen  a perfect love   a perfect
winter  you don’t fail once  you keep failing  just when you
think you’ve got it right   arrives some spring

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