the e-poets network Videotheque



Starting in the early 1990s, Telepoetics came to signify a cosmopolitan affiliation of poets and writers who communed through the basic videophones of the day. It had origins in videophone-based link-ups at the Electronic Café International, in Santa Monica, California. But when poet and activist Merilene Murphy began working indepenently of the Café to produce link-up events of her own, the phenomenon began to take on new life.

Los Angeles poet Kimmerlin Benjamin reads for Telepoetics

documentation video:
Kimmerlin Benjamin in Los Angeles, 1994

Connections among Telepoetics partners were built upon technology that was only starting to emerge in the marketplace at the time. The internet was very new, if it was available at all. Internet videoconferencing technology was very primitive, and was not effective unless it was used with computing and network resources that artists typically could not afford. The Electronic Café, once Murphy's home base for her electronic readings, used Panasonic videophones. But their scarcity in the public marketplace meant that Murphy had to seek other technologies in order to pursue link-ups on her own.

She settled upon what she nicknamed the "Frankenphone," a small device that captured video stills, then sent and received them over a consumer telephone line. Supposedly derived from surveillance technology once used in the Eastern Bloc, the video phones were quite simple. Images were captured and displayed in analog video, in black and white, and were very coarse. These systems could transmit no more than three frames per minute. Further, they could only send and receive pictures. The picture data on the telephone line blocked out all other sounds. Therefore Telepoetics sites needed two phone lines, one for sharing video (one way at a time), and the other for sharing uninterrupted speech.

Complications not withstanding, Murphy built liaisons with videoconferencing partners, first from core participants such as Heather Haley and this writer, then with other writers in her creative sphere. Collectively, the videophones were distributed as far as Cambridge, England and the Caribbean island of Trinidad; to Boston, Chicago, Reading PA, Seattle, Asheville NC, and Trenton NJ in the United States; and to Vancouver and Toronto in Canada. Other sites allied themselves with Murphy's effort as they experimented with their own network technologies. All this was pursued with the goal of sharing two-way video and sound between two or more live poetry readings at the same time. The whole process, built upon the Frankenphone, was humble and failure-prone. But when it worked, the experience felt like magic.

The video here illustrates this experience. Reminiscent of Bell Laboratory demos of their videophones at mid-20th Century world's fairs, participants were often inspired as they touched their own part of the so-called "global village" for the first time. Murphy viewed this mechanism as absolutely key to her own philosophy on fostering peace and understanding across borders, whether such borders delineated political or cultural frontiers. For example, she had used her videophones for more than poetry, to mitigate gang disputes within Los Angeles, and she had positive results.

Technology and allegiances within the poetry community shifted over time. By the millennium, other videoconferencing technologies had come into widespread use. The internet, formerly an expensive hurdle, was becoming a mainstay medium in domestic life. Poets diversified their work into the web. Many self-published video and sound there. The Frankenphone's influence faded. But for a few years before the internet matured, a few poets enjoyed their company, poetry, and audiences across wide distances in real time. The spirit of their adventure with new media lives on in the video here.

- Kurt Heintz, 2012