Voicemail Poetry and Papercraft: A Conversation with John Mortara


I’m rarely moved to immediate action, but for I went right away for John Mortara’s “Small Creatures / Wide Field” from The Newer York Press. Hypertext madness in a broken-down house, with odd mythological creature inserts and cheeky choices? Yep. With a killer design on the beta version of Creativist, the sibling to Atavist? ALL IN.

John Mortara is a writer, poet and teacher who now lives in Massachusetts. We both went to the same small, regional college for grad school (Go Seahawks), but not at the same time or in the same program, which…I don’t know, makes us kinda like fifth cousins three times removed.

John is also releasing a book of poetry in February from YesYes Books called Some Planet and he’s also the founder of voicemailpoems.org, which is the most no-brainer/but-not-so-no-brainer-that-you-did-it literary project in the world.

Talk about publishing “Small Creatures / Wide Field.” Did you plan on it being a “choose your own adventure”-type thing and what were your initial plans for laying it out or creating it that way?

So much of “Small Creatures / Wide Field” was unplanned and i really love when things happen like that. in the early stages, Chuck Young (editor of Newer York Press) and Josh Raab (another editor of Newer York) had me compile a lot of my experimental work, either published or unpublished. Then Daniel Bullard-Bates (Editor for the Newer York and editor of John’s book) and I worked on a collaborative Google doc draft of all the pieces.

We definitely wanted to use some of my papercraft stuff and to re-purpose a bunch of my “adventure” tweets that I had done in the spring. Since those tweets echo a lot of interactive fiction like text adventures and role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, it being structured like a weird CYOA (Choose Your Own Adventure) made a lot of since to Daniel and I.

I bought the Creatavist version and it looks fantastic. How did you/NewerYork Press get hooked up with them and what was that design process like?

LOL I have no idea that’s all the excellence of Josh. I’m kind of amazed that he and Nils Davey (designer for Newer York) were able to design the book in such a badass way and then adapt it to so many formats. Killer execution on their part.

The story of “Small Creatures / Wide Field” has some relationship-love problems but it’s posed with a mythological element in a lot of the questions. Why did you put those two things together?

I felt that the book needed to have some real emotional depth to be a worthwhile/complete experience for people so a big part of the process was finding a strong thread to kind of run parallel to the weird CYOA prompts. That was this series of old flash fiction of mine that I re-discovered. I always ride the line between funny-just-because and funny-while-desperately-grasping-for-meaning. I was honestly surprised at how the threads stand as two very different forms of surreal and thus inform each other in ways I had not imagined until I saw them woven together.

This is mostly prose, but you also have a book of poems coming out. Do you mostly concentrate on prose or poetry these days? BECAUSE IT CAN ONLY BE ONE OR THE OTHER, THAT’S FOREVER THE RULE.

Yep, I’d say “poetry” is my primary focus but I love love prose. I write a lot of prose poems. I think a lot of my flash fiction is very poem-y. I’m better at focusing on sounds and rhythm than character development or believable stories. I think Josh and I were both immediately in agreement that it’s all fiction to us. Even if a lot of my stuff (poetry or prose) is often based in personal experience, the act of reconstructing those feelings requires fiction to act as the glue.

In the book, what can readers expect from those poems as far as genre, style, topic, etc?

Well I’m super stoked for my poetry collection with YesYes Books. It’s called Some Planet and it also has a lot of interactive elements. Some papercraft stuff and forms that try to get readers to participate. A lot of second person imperative language. a lot of strange surreal experiences. bending reality. Obviously lots of space haha. Definitely very “John Mortara” in that I try to make people cry until they laugh and laugh until they cry.

Voicemail Poems is one of those things that seems so obvious, you can’t believe it hasn’t been a thing forever. What’s the general setup for that and how’s it been going?

A couple of years ago I was working on this lit and art publication called THIS ZINE IS A SPACESHIP and one issue we took submissions over voicemail and postcard for this “communication” theme we had.

When we stopped doing the zine i decided i really liked the voicemail thing so I expanded it into voicemailpoems.org. It’s pretty simple. I have a Google Voice account on my phone. I picked out 910-703-POEM and had set up a super basic tumblr to dump the mp3s onto.

I go through all of the voicemails on the weekend, clean them up a little bit in Adobe Audition, and upload them to our Soundcloud account.

Yeah I actually have this memory of when I decided I was going to start the project. I like googled the concept a whole bunch to see if anyone else had done it already thinking, “Come on, I can’t be the only person who has tried to do this.” There were projects with similar elements out there but nothing like a full webzine dedicated to poems via phone call. I’ve been really enjoying it and it’s growing strong now. One fun thing I’ve got on the horizon is to ask musicians to remix our past poems.

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