Dubuque telephone booth offers direct line to poetry

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — A bright blue telephone booth recently appeared in the Millwork District in Dubuque — but those who visit it can’t place an emergency call.

The structure, located in the covered walkway connecting East 10th and East 11th streets, is a Telepoem Booth. People can examine the booth’s directory, dial a number on the old-fashioned rotary phone and hear a poem read aloud.

Local arts group Voices Productions partnered with Humanities Iowa to bring the booth to Dubuque for a one-year stay.

“I envision the Telepoem Booth as an art installation, a combination of abandoned functional architecture and art,” said Sam Mulgrew, director of Voices Productions.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports the first Telepoem Booth was installed in Mesa, Ariz., in March 2016. There currently are five booths in four states, with locations in Santa Fe and Las Vegas, N.M.; Bisbee, Ariz.; State College, Pa.; and now, Dubuque.

The Iowa Telepoem Booth previously was stationed in Council Bluffs before making its way to Dubuque. Its directory is almost entirely composed of Iowa-based poets, including Bellevue writer Julianne Couch.

Couch can be heard in the Telepoem Booth performing her song “What Brings Youse to Bellevue, Then,” which she wrote as a newcomer to Bellevue approximately 10 years ago.

She hopes the Telepoem Booth encourages others that they, too, can be artists.

“A lot of people write poetry, but they might not see themselves as published poets,” she said. “When there’s things like the Telepoem Project and other types of public art, people say, ‘Yes, that I can do.’ We’re not just the audience for this, we can be the creators of it, too, as a community.”

Keith Lesmeister, a Decorah resident who teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College, also has a poem featured in the booth.

He said the Telepoem Booth’s accessibility — it’s open to the public for free, 24 hours a day — can facilitate connections between writers and listeners.

“You don’t have to have a subscription; you don’t have to pay to view or read,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful way to connect the population in general with poetry and creative writing.”

Mulgrew also has requested permission from the booth’s creators to add more poems from local poets to the booth’s directory.

“We hope to populate the telephone with Dubuque poets shortly,” he said. “I think that would add some interesting local appeal.”

According to Mulgrew, the Telepoem Booth is the first step in a broader poetry initiative Voices Productions hope to unveil in the next few years. This could include street performances by “world-class slam poets” and public presentations from local writers.

“Voices (Productions) is interested in all forms of artistic expression, and what’s more expressive than poetry?” Mulgrew said. “Our essential interest is to try to bring poetry to the street to make it accessible for everyone.”