"I've been thinking a lot about the idea of telephones," says Oregon poet laureate Anis Mojgani from his studio in Southeast Portland. It's a fascination he's been harboring for a while. Shortly after Gov. Kate Brown appointed Mojgani in the spring of 2020, he came across a port-a-potty for a nearby construction project in his neighborhood. "The way it was just sitting there in the evening light, I was like, 'It almost looks like a phone booth,'" he recalls.
He'd been considering different ways to engage Oregonians while COVID prevented him from traveling around the state, and that picturesque port-a-potty lit a bulb. "I thought, 'Oh, what if there was a phone booth where somebody could call and hear a poem, or call and leave a poem and listen to somebody else's poem that they had left?'" Time and pressure and an undulating pandemic stalled the idea, but on April 1, Mojgani finally launched the Tele-Poem Hotline, which will deliver a rotating slate of poems written and read by an Oregon poet laureate to anyone who dials in.
The lineup has included seven pieces each by Paulann Petersen, Kim Stafford (and his father William Stafford), Elizabeth Woody, and Mojgani himself. They rotate daily: some have been newly recorded, others pulled from audio archives, and all were assembled by Mojgani's friend Oliver Blank, who took care of the technical details. All hopeful audiences need to do is dial (503) 928-7008, kick back, and listen.
The response, Mojgani says, has been warm. Nearly 1,000 people from 12 states (and Canada) dialed in during the first week, and Mojgani's Instagram post announcing the hotline is among his most-liked ever. "The best way I can describe the response is that it feels like folks are very tickled by it," he says. "People have been very young in their responding to it; it's something that's made them excited to feel innocent again."
The times, Mojgani acknowledges, have chipped away at that innocence for many of us. After two tumultuous years as laureate, he's interested in finding ways to generate "sweet uncertainty" to counter the anxious unknowns of the 2020s so far. The phone line—which, he teases, will continue into May and take new shapes—is one stab at that; another is a weekly series he's launched where he reads poems out his window at sunset to a sidewalk audience.
"We as individuals forget that we are part of the fabric of this city, and we have ownership of this city," he says, however hopeless people may feel about its current state. "There's a city of Portland that I want to live in, and a city I think is very possible. I get dejected feeling like I'm unable to make that city happen—that there's just too much happening to push against it—but there are all these ways we can remind ourselves, 'Oh, I get to do something.' My hope and intent with a lot of the things I'm working on right now are perhaps that they rally folks together, and also turn a switch that says, 'What are the things that I can do to help build the city that I want to live inside of, as opposed to waiting for somebody else to build a city that I don't want to live inside of?'"
"Definitely the hope is that someone can call this line, and for two, three, four minutes, hopefully there is some respite. That that which is chaotic is forgotten a little bit," Mojgani adds. "And maybe even that the opposite of chaos gets carried through the rest of their day in some form or fashion."