We’re doing a phone survey, asking
average people like yourself, attractive, cynical, smart, etc.
people who cook with garlic, who, if married,
it’s not the first time. People who have had
2 or more jobs in the last few years.
We want to know what your preferred response is
when you hear,
if in fact you do hear
the voices. Shall I clarify?
Voices that converse
on the great unhappiness and failure
that is yours. How often would you swear
you’re not drunk, no
but the trees are swaying. We’re calling to ask
if you ever get confused and mistake
the swaying of trees for the lapping of water,
so that you can’t get your bearing. Is that when
the voices advise you, smooth
as a nail going in. Are there certain words that,
should I say, sneak in from behind, know all
the back entrances? Would you agree
that the secret of their strength
is that they will not let you give in
to your hunger. How often—
all you’ve said and all you’ve done, torn
like meat from a bone. Is that when you go out, walk
past lighted windows? Go to a movie? Have a coke?
Or do you drift off till the voices wake you
with a jolt or a slap: “Payback time.”
Like a street person by a diner begging for change
who will not let you pass and go in and get your
lousy cup of coffee
though the sign on the diner flashes: OPEN ALL NIGHT.
Are the voices familiar with, say,
streets you walked on as a kid,
torn signs, dead trees?
We’re asking if the voices, now or in the past,
have ever told you that you have to go back
to the path by the precipice. Because that is your path.
Would you mind answering? Or am I
Shall I call back later?
What time would be best?
Questions and Answers
What inspired “Phone Survey”?
Actual phone surveys are so annoying. I began to think about the ultimate absurdity, a telemarketer calling up and asking existential questions. I had fun taking off with that idea in the poem. The composer Chan Ka Nin put the poem, and five others from the book Late in a Slow Time to music. Duo Concertante performed the piece and the woman who recited the poem read it in the voice of the Lily Tomlin phone-operator character, the one who used to go “One ringy, dingy”. (Tomlin performed years ago but you can see this skit on youtube.)
When I first read “Phone Survey” at readings, I would begin by saying “This is an odd poem.” I read the poem at a reading in London, England and a woman came up to me afterwards and said, “‘Phone Survey’ is not an odd poem, and you shouldn’t introduce it like that.” I followed her advice, and now read it without any introduction. I realized that many people hear critical voices.