July 11, 2011

Poet creates a buzz by reading poems over the phone

Emory Creative Writing Fellow Heather Christle

Heather Christle has been fielding a lot of phone calls lately. The Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory is reading her poems over the telephone. She's set up a special phone line and accepts calls during designated times.

"It was not something I planned out when I was writing the poems," she says of her new collection, "The Trees The Trees" (Octopus Books, 2011), which contains several references to the telephone.  "At some point it came to me that it would be a cool experiment to see what would happen if I set up a phone number where people could call me and actually hear a poem."

Callers can request which poem they'd like to hear, or she will suggest one for them.

She's read poems over the phone from the grocery store, while walking down the street and even while driving – luckily, she has a few memorized.

She's received more than 170 calls. For the first few days, the calls were mostly from people who were familiar with her work. Then, as her phone poem experiment attracted international media attention,  "suddenly I found myself talking to people in Singapore, in Australia, in Israel, and lots of people in the U.K."

Her callers' reactions have ranged from curiosity to gratitude, laughter to tears.

"It has felt remarkable to connect with so many different people," she says.

And that connection, in an era of indirect communication with social networking and text messaging, now feels intimate.

"When I'm using the phone, it's usually to talk to my family or very close friends," she observes. "It's pretty rare to talk to people you don't know. So that's been kind of amazing. It's been really remarkable."

Christle finished revising the new poetry collection during her two-year fellowship at Emory.

"The most precious resource that this fellowship has given me is time. It's been incredible to devote myself to the practice of writing," she says. "Creative Writing at Emory is really thriving and amazing," she adds.

"It's been inspiring for me to work with students here," says Christle, who is teaching a poetry course this summer. "Sometimes you'll hear writers say that teaching distracts them from their own work, but for me it's been a really vital part of a continued investigation of everything that a poem can do."

After her fellowship at Emory concludes this summer, Christle and her husband, Christopher DeWeese (who has also taught poetry at Emory), will be moving back to their home state of Massachusetts. She's currently at work on her next poetry project. Christle's third collection, "What Is Amazing," is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

Christle has been interviewed by, by radio shows and The Guardian UK, among others.  She's quick to point out that hers is not an unprecedented idea, but notes that what started as an experiment has "grown beyond anything I'd ever imagined it would."

Her newfound publicity has been "more about the telephone and not so much the poems, so I think that helps me to take it with a grain of salt," she says. "This is definitely a fun couple of weeks, but long-term there probably won't be this much interest in the poems themselves. I do hope for the people for whom the poems are going to matter there will be a more sustained kind of interest."

Christle is accepting phone calls until July 14. Then, she says, laughing: "I've got to find someone who I can call and have them read me a poem."

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