Guerilla Ginsberg campaign celebrates National Poetry Month, locally.
By Marke B.
STREET LIT If you’ve seen the above stenciled on various sidewalks around the Bay, and you need a little boost of loose lyricism in your life, give a call won’t you? Alas, you won’t be patched directly through to Beat bard Allen Ginsberg — I don’t think any of us are ready to face the dread possibility of Zombie Ginsberg — but you will get a nice little poem by him read well, lifting you up by the eardrums out of the bland quotidian.
Just call 415-763-6968 now.
Launched by “psychoactive” poet and storyteller Evan Burton and “interactive artist” Zachary McCune, the Call Allen project encourages people to celebrate National Poetry Month — that’s this month, April, the cruellest one — in the most accessible way possible, via their phones.
That the duo have also selected one of the most accessible poets is a way of making poetry seem, in today’s wild and crazy term, “relatable.”
“Evan and I work together,” McCune, who assures me this isn’t all a cute viral marketing campaign for some Ginsberg Brand Anti-Vitamin Water (California Sunflower-Flavored), told me via email. “A few months ago, on a long road trip for business, we discovered a mutual appreciation for poetry. We went back and forth with the radio off reciting our favorite lines. We also joked that poetry was so far from the minds of most Americans it needed marketing.
“Of course, we were kidding, but that was the seed of our concern for creating an accessible and thoughtful experience with poetry.”
As for gajillions, Ginsberg’s combination of discursive brio and avant-garde hipness was a happy entry point for the young poetry lovers: “Wonderfully, so many young readers find a new understanding of poetry because of Allen Ginsberg,” McCune wrote. “Both Evan and I had experiences where we were reading really formal poetry in high school, when suddenly we encountered this casual lyricism of Ginsberg and were totally blown away.
“Ginsberg’s poems do that for lots of Americans: they are catalysts. And many of those poems were composed in SF. So walking around the city is a constant chance to encounter the elements that inspired Ginsberg and his entire generation.”
There’s a glorious legacy of Beat-meets-receiver shenanigans — including John Giorno’s great 1960s-’70s multimedia experiment “Dial-A-Poem” from his Giorno Poetry Systems, which offered callers poems expounding on all manner of hot-button tropics.
But there’s also a whole lot of Ginsberg out there – how to choose a poem that would fit a fleet cellular experience? “There was a definite appeal to just rattling the full wildness of ‘Howl’ off on an unsuspecting caller. But ultimately we wanted this to be appropriate for any possible caller. Short enough to hear the whole thing. Relatable in message and experience. So we did “A Supermarket in California,” from his 1956 Howl book from City Lights.
“Anyone who hears that poem can relate to the simple but provocative experience of wandering a city, seeing your hero in everything, and hoping for transcendent inspiration. Especially in the beautiful, walkable avenues of the Bay.”
Will listeners also hear a poetic treatise on the hallucinatory effects of hypercapitalism, or a timely, pre-elegiac riff on California as a surreal land of plenty, always in drought-danger of fading away? That depends on the listener, probably.
Burton took care of the reading, McCune the technicalities — he played with a phone functionality platform called Twilio to make it all work. (Voicemail’s so passé, apparently; still, the recording sounds charmingly handmade, coming through slightly warped with various street noises in the background. It casts a lovely spell.) And both of them have chalk-stained fingers from the stencils, one presumes.
“Ultimately, I love the idea of calling a phone number on a street and having something wonderful happen. Something poetic,” McCune says. Good ol’ Ginsberg would approve.