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.
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