John Giorno standing in front of equipment for Dial-a-Poem, 1968 – 1972, Terri Smith
Art and writing at the end of the 1960s had expanded into new kinds of experience. Almost anything could suddenly be labeled “art”—a pile of tires, a conversation, the sound of rain outside a window. Turning away from the heroics associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement—the grand gesture—artists and writers suddenly understood the actions of an ordinary life as a type of poetry. In addition to art’s expansion, the poem on the page expanded, the definitions of “media” expanded, the frame of the picture expanded. Art and life, for a short time, became concomitant.
In a time before movie hotlines listed local showtimes, before psychics mapped out the coming year over the telephone, before phone-sex operators greeted lonely people late at night, John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem offered up poetry for the everyday caller. The program changed regularly; one could make a phone call each day and encounter a different work by a new artist. Aram Saroyan stated simply: “Not a cricket / Ticks a clock.” Joe Brainard recited a litany of remembrances: “I remember ponytails.” Ted Berrigan reveled in the “[f]eminine, marvelous, and tough.” Diane di Prima read her “Revolutionary Letter #7”: “Meditate, pray, make love, be prepared/ at any time, to die.” Taylor Mead mimicked the sounds of a motorcycle: “Brrrrruuuumm, brruuuuuum, craaaaaash, craaaash!”
Other works were political, engaging with the basic facts of the world in the late 1960s, war and social revolution. Bobby Seale described “[t]he supple color of your jazz skin” and declared “We hate you white people.” English poet Heathcote Williams expressed his disgust with the English: “I will not pay taxes until the patients at the Putney Home for Incurables hold a deeply personal shit-in in Carnaby Street in the Kings Road.” Bernadette Mayer sweetly told the story of revolutionaries after the war: “Now we live in a big house. we have fresh water & we eat chickpeas, milk, & instant breakfast as long as they last. would you like to join us?”