The Cellphone Relay


A month or two ago my friends Sara Veglahn and Noah Eli Gordon, who live in Denver, hosted a reading at their house by the poets Andrew Joron, Brian Henry, and Laynie Brown. Noah knew that I would want to hear Andrew’s reading in particular, so he called me up on Andrew’s cellphone then he set the phone to “speaker” mode and Andrew read with it open on a nearby table so I could listen along.

This changed the dynamic of the physical reading in some subtle ways (Noah made a joke about the “Philadelphia Simulcast” during the intro) and my experience of the relayed reading was obviously different than if I had been present in the space. One of the things I sometimes find frustrating about really engaging live readings is that I have to physically sit still. I find that my one of my weird responses to paying close attention to something is that I tend to pace. My dream came true with this reading because I was able to pace around my apartment while listening.

In terms of technology, this is a pretty simple arrangement, one we stumbled upon when I happened to call Noah while he was listening to a reading at AWP a few weeks ago. Instead of ignoring my call, he opened up his phone, whispered “I’m at a poetry reading. Do you want to listen?” Then he held it up while it was set on “speaker” mode from his seat in the audience. This initial relayed listening experience was much different from Andrew’s reading, mainly because of the relay point I was listening from. At the AWP reading, my listening was primarily aligned with/filtered through Noah’s physical presence (shifting around, coughing, laughing at funny parts of poems) separate from the larger collective laughter and ambient noises from the rest of the audience. The reader at AWP was unaware of the Philly Simulcast. Listening to Andrew’s reading in Denver, my listening was aligned more with Andrew’s physical presence than with a particular audience member, and the fact that Andrew was conscious of the presence of an alternate, single audience member changes things a bit (and resonates nicely with some of his concerns with technology/disembodied voices, etc).

The use of technology to create extended audiences is not new (I’m thinking of live broadcasts of poetry readings and even more interactive computer-mediated exchanges in the past at the Kelly Writer’s House) but I like the low-tech possibilities of the cellphone relay and how it connects the experience to individual audience members. Noah and I had talked about making more conscious use of the ubiquity of cellphones to orchestrate different kinds of reading/listening experiences. For example, you might have many audience members each calling another person on their cellphone and putting it on speaker so there would be a simultaneous physically present audience that corresponds with a fragmented audience connecting to the reading through a variety of physical listeners. Or, you might also have a collective audience agreement to have a roomful of people receive calls from a live reading happening elsewhere and have a massive, weird amplification effect of having a pile of cellphones recreate the sonic experience happening elsewhere from several different receiver points.

What I like about the cellphone relayed reading is that it requires very little planning and no technological expertise. Obviously there are limitations of sound quality which might be distracting. This type of listening seems to be “split” or overlapping in the sense that my attention (in the AWP reading) was divided between the reader’s voice and a particular listener’s response.


7 Responses to “The Cellphone Relay”

  1. 1 joseph bradshaw

    There’s a recording which you might be interested in. It’s from a 2003 reading in Portland, called The Phoneticathon: 4 cell phones were amplified simultaneously while a bunch of people from around the world called in to recite a sound poem. You can read about it here:

  2. Dear Eric,
    I have a naive and embarrassing question, coming from one who feels sorry for the dishtowels that don’t get used as often. Were the other poets from this reading not simulcast also? If not, do you think that made them feel bad? Were they aware that Andrew Joron’s reading would be simulcast? Did they read before or after? I wonder was there an audible shame or dejectedness to their readings. If dejectedness by nature goes what is unrecorded. What is the sound of that?
    Or perhaps they were simulcast to others.

  3. 3 ericbaus

    Dear grapes etc.,

    I’ll risk being naive/embarrased and respond to your questions in perhaps too much detail. Well, I hope no one felt bad that they weren’t simulcast. I don’t think about not being relayed via cellphone to one person as a diss. I know Andrew personally a little bit more than the other readers so maybe it seemed less weird to ask him to talk with his cellphone in speaker mode. Also, there’s something about Joron’s writing and his concerns with technology that made it seem appropriate. Basically, we thought he’d be into the idea, and he was. Oh, and if I remember correctly, after his reading Andrew picked up the phone and for some reason he couldn’t hear me but I could hear him and he must have thought my signal was lost and hung up. That more or less ended the relay.

    Actually, I would be really interested in what dejection sounds like in a reading. Hm. You could probably find examples of that in the PennSound archives if you looked hard enough. Maybe in a group reading if one reader is super-performative and the crowd goes crazy and then the following reader is less performative they might feel deflated. I think that kind of dynamic is pretty common. A lot of times if one reader is really funny and narrative while the following reader is doing something more fragmented/abstract/gestural/quiet it creates a weird kind of shift in the attention of the audience that can sometimes seem deflating. One of the things I’m interested in doing more with this site is paying attention to readings and reading styles that don’t necessarily hit you over the head. I’m very interested in thinking about “flat” readings. What I’ve notices after listening to tons and tons of recordings over the years is that no reading is ever “flat” or “non-performative”. Anyway, I’ve strayed from your questions, which I appreciated.


  4. 4 Anonymous

    Dear Eric,
    Some letters cannot be unsent, but I wished immediately I had not sent that one. It was a margin of a margin of a thought, and I have had many looking and listening here (baustralia). I apologize. It is presumptuous to hypothesize feelings of dejection (or of any kind) in anyone. In reflecting how I even got there … maybe in a weird way it ties to my delight in listening to your post of the audience sounds after a Ceravolo reading. I was thinking of what goes unrecorded, what’s cut, what’s outside the frame, of Cage’s 4′ 33″, etc.
    In a fit of bad circuitry, those thoughts jumped in my head to the unsimulcasted poets. I could have even framed my comment better, without the underdog hullaballoo. I should keep a shorter leash and sharper eye on those trains — sorry —
    Right now the air in the library is circulating, much more eloquently.

  5. 5 ericbaus

    Oh, no need to apologize! I’m all for thinking aloud and I think the questions were interesting. Please post again anytime.

  6. 6 Sara

    Hi Eric!

    Just a wee clarification–it was Laynie Browne, not Elizabeth Robinson, who participated in this reading along with B. Henry & A. Joron.


  7. 7 ericbaus

    Thanks Sara!

    I made the change in the post.


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