For 25 years Peter Payack of Cambridge ran a popular underground arts project called “Phone-a-Poem.” The concept was simple, but also quirky and subtle, like the medium it celebrated. Payack would mail cassettes to poets along with a note asking if they might record themselves reading one of their poems. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, nearly everyone agreed, including some of the biggest names of the time, like Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Donald Hall. Payack, who is a poet himself, would then place the recorded poems in an answering machine. Anyone could call in and listen and many did—Phone-a-Poem received thousands of calls every week.
Payack ran Phone-a-Poem from 1976-2001. Now his cassettes are archived at Harvard University, and this spring they’ve been featured in an exhibit at the Woodberry Poetry Room in Lamont Library that concludes today. If you don’t make it over there in time, you can listen to six of the recordings below.
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