Poem Booth

Gallery Aferro’s mission is to provide a platform for artists who seek to exchange ideas in the name of advancing human dignity and beauty, but it’s fair to say that our organization has largely been focused on visual artists. However, over time we have worked diligently to expand our scope to become more inclusive of artists that may go beyond the limitations of visual media. First, we expanded with sound media. Today, we’re expanding with literary media … and sound.

The Poem Booth Project is Gallery Aferro’s new permanent installation that will feature curated collections of spoken word poetry. Combining experimental collaboration with the power of language, we invite poets, spoken word artists, and bards of every style and verse to share an audio recording of their written works in our 1960s-era retrofitted phone booth located in the Main Gallery at 73 Market Street. 

With the ability to hold a near infinite number of works thanks to the countless phone number combinations available, gallery visitors can enjoy listening to each poem by dialing a specific phone number on the keypad. The phone numbers available are shared via a list of poems featured in a printed “phone book” within the booth for each curated collection. 

History & Development

Originally based in Joanne’s Luncheonette in Elizabeth, NJ, the refurbished Poem Booth was donated by Vicki Fernandez on behalf of her father, Victor Fernandez (1950-2018), former owner of the popular eatery and local hotspot. With the permission and help of his wife, Phyllis Fernandez; her sister and business partner, Marie Pasko; her husband, Chris Pasko, and their extended families, the hybrid project came to life, building a bridge between community and artistry with a touch of a button.

My dad loved tinkering. Putting relics to use. ‘Hacking,’ before it was a thing. Sound, music, talk radio; and most importantly, when I got crap out of his garage. He would be excited about this project.”

— Vicki Fernandez

Much like Gallery Aferro’s other two permanent installations, the refurbished wooden phone booth needed the help of someone with the technical expertise to make it a reality. Enter interactive designer and multimedia programmer Sha Sha Feng.

Feng is the co-founder of DIVAS (Digital Interactive Visual Arts Sciences) for Social Justice, a grassroots community organization that aims to bridge the digital divide and teach media literacy and cultural awareness in underserved communities. So when Gallery Aferro asked her to share her mechanical prowess and inspirational guidance on this collaborative community-based project, she was eager to lend a hand.

Feng, along with her husband and technical assistant Peter A. Jackson, disassembled the GTE phone, compiled and programmed the electronic mechanism, and arranged the phone number combinations to provide an infinite number of literary works to be recorded and shared with anyone interested in connecting with artists in new and thought-provoking ways. 

Spirit & Transformation 

Free and open to the public, this permanent sound installation not only fuses the immutability of written poetry with the ephemeral spirit of spoken word, it also uplifts and enriches art lovers, poetry lovers, and anyone who appreciates cultural collaboration, reinvention and renewal.

“The Poem Booth is about the way that phones were culturally transformative as a technology and completely changed the way we communicate as families,” explains Artistic Director Evonne M. Davis. “I wanted to marry that with the power of poetry because reading LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) was the most transformative experience of my youth. It was a bridge out of where I was into another place. When reading his work, I felt like we had connected, and in that moment, I was more than the sum of my life experience. With this exhibition, I get to offer that same visceral experience to others.”

Uniting beyond distance and intimacy, two experiences many people are finding difficult to navigate these days, the Poem Booth provides literary artists with a platform to express their creative voice — both figuratively and literally — and connect across genres, cultures, genders, and generations.