Switchboard III: poems and music inspired by the telephone

Thursday 23rd November, Wired Café Bar, Pelham Street

This live literary event, hosted by Dr Sarah Jackson and Jo Dixon of Nottingham Trent University, brought together the words of callers and poets in a vibrant celebration of the cultural history of the telephone. Two earlier events in the Switchboard series invited members of the public to produce new writing about the varied and vast telephone archive at Nottingham Industrial Museum, or to leave telephone-themed answer machine messages in the phone box adjacent to Dialling In café, Low Pavement. These voices were combined on Thursday evening with poems inspired by the telephone from open-mic performers, staff and students from NTU, and special guest poet Russ Litten. Here, Hannah Cooper-Smithson, writer and PhD student at NTU, reviews the evening.

Totally Wired Poetry events are a regular fixture for the poetry community in Nottingham but tonight was something new. The usual crowd was interspersed with new faces, drawn in by the festival and the related Switchboard events. The atmosphere was one of intrigue and intimacy – the snug space, the fogged windows, the overhanging question of the compelling, but mysterious theme. The café was full of phones, placed face down on the tables for politeness, but never put away. How would we get an entire evening of poetry out of this one object? Surely there could only be so many poems about telephone calls?

Poet Beck Cullen takes a call

The evening opened with a compilation of answerphone messaged recorded at the Switchboard II event. It was extraordinary to hear what people felt willing and able to share once they were safely sequestered in that little red box. Messages to loved ones who had passed away, messages of confusion, of comedy, of regret, of humour (phone boxes are, for some people, usually only used for urination), phone calls about the everyday (how to cook the perfect roast potato), accounts of childhood memories, of misbehaviour, of romance – and failed romance. The variety and humanity in the messages began the evening perfectly, creating a real sense of possibility.

Russ Litten reads his telephone-themed poems

The guest poet for the evening was Russ Litten. From the first poem, his experience of spoken word projects was obvious; Litten’s work is written to be read aloud. There is a rhythm, an energy, and an overall sincerity that I think if left on paper, would be somehow diminished. With clever use of rhyme and pace, Litten’s reading was a genuine communication of experience and emotion.

There was poignancy, humour, and memory – both on a personal and local level. Standout pieces were Litten’s energetic opening number, ‘Lollystick’, about hearing a phone box ring as he walked past (which led to the revelation that phone boxes in Hull are cream – who knew?) and a poem written in response to the triple trawler tragedy in Hull from 1968, and the local woman who predicted that three black clouds would cover the city.

The breadth in topic of Litten’s work set the tone for the rest of the readers. The interpretations of ‘a telephone poem’ varied widely, from poems about long-distance relationships to dead dogs, Doctor Who, wires both literal and crossed. The Switchboard III event was a fun and thought-provoking celebration of the varied and complex legacy of the telephone, and our individual responses to it.

Hannah Cooper-Smithson

Sarah Jackson reads her poem, ‘The Red Telephone’ from Ten Poems on the Telephone (Nottingham: Candlestick Press, 2017)