x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Heather Christle's literature is just a phone call away

An American writer is reading her poems over the phone. We find out what her experiment is all about.

Heather Christle is reading poems from her collection The Trees the Trees.
Heather Christle is reading poems from her collection The Trees the Trees.

It feels just a little weird - make that really weird - to be calling up a poet out of the blue and asking her to read one of her compositions down the phone. But this is exactly how Heather Christle is encouraging readers to experience her new collection, The Trees the Trees. Rather than hope people might come across her book in a shop, online, or at a literature festival, she recently published her US phone number on her website, as well as a list of poems to choose from. "Call me and I will read to you," it says. It's that simple. You don't have to be a journalist or a poetry expert. You just have to dial the number and listen.

And so it comes to pass that I interrupt Christle doing the dishes one morning in Atlanta, Georgia, hoping that she'll read me the intriguingly titled Poem Consisting Entirely Of Advice. She doesn't appear to mind. "I wish you'd called a bit later, though," she giggles. "I'm going to the hardware store in a bit and reading a poem next to the nails might have been quite fun."

The poem in question, she warns, is short. There is an awkward silence when it abruptly ends, although that might be because the line "what if he asks you/what are you looking at" is slightly unnerving. But what do you do in these circumstances? Clap? Make delighted whooping noises? There is, it seems, no etiquette to express appreciation for a solo poetry performance taking place in a kitchen thousands of miles away.

Sensing my slight unease, perhaps, Christle breezily says "that's it!" and starts laughing. But then, she's already had plenty of practice at disarming her listeners: she's just read a poem to somebody in Australia ("it was past midnight, their time!" she exclaims) and has fielded calls from Canada, the UK, and nearer to home, in the US.

"People do get anxious about calling me," she says, which is reassuring. "But it's a great experience both for them and me. I get these little glimpses of lives, people calling on their breaks at work, or from the beach. It's really cool.

"Writing these poems I had this 'you' that I kept addressing, without specifically knowing who that was. And I feel that every person who calls makes that 'you' grow in my mind just a little bit more. That is tremendously exciting."

Speaking to Christle, it's clear that even though she can't quite believe the "insane" response to her project, it isn't just a gimmick picked up via the internet and just as quickly spat out again. The poems are sharp meditations on modern life and the book, she tells me, is full of little nods to phones and phone calls. So it made sense to complete the circle by reading them through the same technology. "I didn't put the phone number on the site and invite calls because I was cynically dreaming up some cool new way to promote it," she says. "I was just genuinely intrigued to see what might happen if I did."

What happened is that Christle is finding herself on the phone more and more as word gets around. It's interesting that her project has been so popular. As she admits herself it's not an original idea - the New York poets Frank O'Hara and John Giorno were attempting something similar in the 1950s and 1960s. The difference in 2011 is that we're so used to living our lives digitally and virtually, actually speaking to a poet on the end of a line rather than engaging with them via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter is something of a novelty.

"I find it refreshing, definitely," she says. "It's invaluable to hear a poet read their work. I mean, it can be transformative, can't it? I wouldn't say what I'm doing is replacing the act of sitting and reading quietly, though, which can also be wonderful - and of course I also believe in text because I'm a poet, so I value those ways of communicating. But I've been most surprised with how generous people are when they listen to me. Not that I expect them to tell me that a poem I've just read them is amazing. But what I love, really love, is the notion that people want to call at all. If you step back and think about it, it's pretty unbelievable."

And with that, Christle says goodbye and gets ready for her trip to the hardware store. Poetry book - and phone - firmly in hand.

Heather Christle is reading from The Trees the Trees until Thursday. Call 00 1 (413) 570 3077 or visit www.thetreesthetrees.tumblr.com