With a nod to John Giorno and other telepoetic projects and events, about five years back (and periodically since then) as a form of extra credit in my courses, I instructed both undergraduate and graduate students to call up friends and family members and read poems on their voicemails, instead of blasting off wishes for return phone calls.
Often the poems were selected from assigned “texts,” but students received even more points if they shared originally composed poems or encouraged others to call my office as well as their friends and family members, and passed on the assignment so like a benign pyramid scheme, we could cash in on the profits of language more subversively and with greater frequency. That’s how a Voicemail Poetry Movement began at University of Vermont.

It was wonderful to arrive to my office and hear parents leave impassioned readings of their favorite poems on my voicemail or to have UVM students render delightful interpretations of Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg, (all still popular among youth,) and new favorites like Billy Collins, Terrance Hayes and Tony Hoagland.
One of my students called another student that he liked and read a Rilke poem which he heard on the first day of class as being one of her favorite poets. After four years, they are still together and I believe headed to the wedding aisle.
At some point, it became overwhelming, my office voicemail Inbox quickly filled up, and I could not keep up the maintenance (or my grading for that matter); it was especially difficult deleting some of my favorite readings.
I have not included this assignment on my syllabus in some time, now, but occasionally will receive voicemail poetry in my Inbox, as in this poem I received on May 11 (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3), from some anonymous person. What is curious about this reading is that it appears on my cellphone and I have no clue who the identity is of the person reading, making the phone call feel like an interrupting telemarketing call.
Try it. Call someone now. Read a poem. If they pick up, tell them to hang up, and not to pick up your next phone call. I think they’ll be moved by what they hear.

Originally Published: June 5th, 2008

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. June 7, 2008
     maria d

    some years ago, then-Harvard phd student Jacques Debrot performed an experiment in which he called random numbers he got from the phone book and read poetry to whoever answered, and had conversations with them about what poetry was. Then he presented his findings as performances. He said people had very thoughtful and considered and insightful understandings of what they heard, and their responses were smart and gave one reason to hope for the spiritual and aesthetic strivings of people. Jacques himself moved on and left poetry, but the experiment has always remained a touchstone for my faith in people's relationship to poetry.

  2. August 9, 2008
     Judy Lucier

    I am hoping you can help me to get in touch with Kathryn Starbuck, Kathryn Salyer I think when I knew her in Chicago. She is godmother to my child, Kathryn Lucier Green. Kathy and I have not been in touch for many years, and I would like to write to her. Thanks for any assistance you may be able to offer.