Interview: Cole Sarar of Ring Ring Poetry

This interview originally appeared in Paper Darts magazine.

Do literary events usually involve poets whispering sweet nothings into your ear? If you answered no just now, hang tight. Maybe pull out your cell phone. For a good time, you can call 612-223-POEM. It’s cheap. And just about as discreet as holding your cell phone to your ear in a public park—or passing the librarians at the circulation desk of the Franklin Avenue Library in Minneapolis—ever gets.

The hotline in question, Ring Ring Poetry, is a project of local Minneapolis poet Cole Sarar. After receiving a VERVE grant hosted by Intermedia Arts, she set out to “broadcast” two poems a week on the hotline—between May 2 and June 28—in collaboration with twelve (and counting) other poets.

To participate, all you need to do is visit a designated public place for each poem in Saint Paul or Minneapolis and then call in to the hotline for a poem tailored to that location. It’s all part of Sarar’s effort to “take poetry out of the literature magazines and off the stages into physical locations around the places I call home.”

Check out the interview with her below, then listen in to the last poem of the summer this Tuesday, on June 25.

Dakota: Do you think Ring Ring Poetry makes poetry a lot more personal, just based on the fact that it’s about making an actual phone call, in a public space?

Cole: Definitely. It’s very intimate to have that one-to-one experience of a poet in your ear. I think that was also part of some of the hesitance for people to call in the beginning—it’s just so intimate. We’re getting into a part of our culture and our time period where we’re spending a lot of time on the computer or texting and having those interactions is not quite as personal.

Dakota: Yeah, New York magazine just ran an article on how men text women. It’s pretty on-the-nose. It leads with, “In general, men don’t know how to text.…Our tiny missives are sometimes rude, sometimes girly, and always confusing.”

Cole: (laughs) So easy to get them wrong. [Miscommunication] is one of the major aspects of our culture right now. But the other thing texting allows us is the space to be more withdrawn and hold our cards closer to our chest, because you’re not hearing the tone of voice, you’re not sharing the words as they’re coming out.

Dakota: You’ve mentioned that the project was inspired by a participatory installation at the Walker in 2011, by the group Blast Theory. They focused on getting people to experience common conventions of both film noir and surveillance. Did you have any similar classic storytelling forms or tropes in mind that you wanted to tackle?

Cole: I didn’t specifically go for film noir or surveillance. But definitely some other aspects. I’m probably at the stage in my career where I’m interested in origin stories—the beginning stories, the fairy tales, the story of where things come from, the stories of where we are and who we are.

One of the other things that I enjoy is interaction. In my Choose Your Own Adventure pieces specifically, I wanted—if you’re talking in computer speak—for you to be able to notice easter eggs if you were listening to a poem in the space.

Dakota: I get that. Except I should probably confess: I’ve only listened to each of the poems, one after the other, at home.

Cole: That is a benefit of the project. You can be in Timbuktu and hear a poem about a place you know in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. Or you can be from California and have never seen Minneapolis or Saint Paul but still have this feeling that you’ve been there for a moment. I have a friend who lives in LA who texted me after participating in the very first Choose Your Own Adventure poem, about the experience.

Dakota: So what (or who) are some of your interactive art crushes right now?

Cole: Everything Jane McGonigal does.

Dakota: The woman who talks about MMOs and game theory?

Cole: Yeah. She designs a lot of fantastic games—and secret games, some for her most close followers. There was one that was called Top-Secret Dance Off.

Dakota: Wait, it was “top secret?” Can you tell me more?

Cole: It was online. It had this classic Jane Mcgonigal feel, where you were good and kind to each other even though you were supposedly also competing. There were these short little videos, maybe a minute long or thirty seconds where you were supposed to take on these challenges: dance without your legs! And then you would award people with different adjectives. Funny or beautiful or stylish.

I was one of the few people in the Twin Cities doing it at the time. It’s kind of top-secret. I probably shouldn’t be talking about it.

…I’m joking.

Dakota: Her focus on using gaming as a semi-covert method to create social change or promote education is also actually what I really like about Ring Ring Poetry. Each poem makes people stop in places they wouldn’t normally stop in, and gives them an entirely new perspective. I mean, even if you are already walking along Lake of the Isles, you aren’t necessarily thinking, “Oh…this place used to be marsh. Totally.”

Cole: Exactly. That was what I really wanted out of it. To promote this idea that the space and the poetry, together, inform your understanding of each other. That if someone writes about an invisible building—that was once on a certain block but is no longer there—that you will start seeing that building or thinking about that building whenever you walk by or maybe you have to look it up.

When Dobby [Gibson] mentions a bunch of old poets who talk about Minneapolis [...] it makes you go, like, “WHAT?” and you look it up. And you find something more about a place, and suddenly forever your memory of that place is more physical.