Philadelphia poet laureate Trapeta B. Mayson on Monday launched the Healing Verse Philly Poetry Line (1-855-763-6792), a toll-free telephone line that offers callers a 90-second poem by a Philadelphia-connected poet. A new poem will be featured each Monday throughout 2021.
In the context of a pandemic, a presidential election, and a racial reckoning, Healing Verse “offers a glimmer of hope because all those things impact us spiritually, mentally.” Mayson said in an interview Tuesday. “And now, more than ever, we need spaces to process.”
The focus is on “affirming poems,” she said. Mayson’s “In This Season” is the project’s inaugural poem.
“In this season of shifting, of barrier-breaking, undoing, unearthing, uprising, leveling, you, beloved, may think yourself too small,” she recites on the hotline. “But what a world you are! What sphere of shocking beauty and grace!”
Before callers get to the poetry, Mayson greets them in a buttery tone and lists out a menu. “To hear this week’s feature poem, press 1,” she says. “To hear about upcoming Healing Verse events, press 2. To hear about resources for mental health and well-being in the city of Philadelphia, press 3.”
Mayson said the idea of a poetry hotline came about last year during a pre-pandemic lunch with Yolanda Wisher, Philadelphia’s 2016 poet laureate. Then, before Mayson had a chance to lay down the groundwork for any of her initiatives as the city’s poet laureate for 2020-21, the coronavirus crisis hit.
“I was trying to figure out how to reach the people that I normally interacted with at libraries, in community centers, in neighborhoods,” Mayson said. “I’m a community-based teaching artist, and I wasn’t able to touch people who don’t have access to things like Zoom, YouTube, and podcasts.” As she thumbed through possible solutions, the poetry hotline idea returned.
Growing up in North Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Mayson remembers sitting on the linoleum floor in her parents’ kitchen, tangling her fingers around the yellow cord of the phone that was attached to the wall as she laughed with her friends about her teenage affairs.
During that time, “There was just a different reverence for taking the time to hear someone’s voice on a hotline. It was a sacred process. It was a very community, family-driven thing,” she said. “I wanted to be creative with poetry and push people to participate in something that might bring about nostalgia. Although it might be old school, it has a wider reach.”
Poets — including Philadelphia youth poet laureate Cydney Brown, Pew Fellow Airea D. Matthews, and spoken-word artist Enoch the Poet — are already booked throughout January and February. A monthly schedule will be posted on the Healing Verse website, which is slated to launch this month.
“We’re going to have people you know and people you may not know,” said Mayson. “I want to make sure we have a very wide cross-section of ages, races, gender identities from across the city.” Poets with connections to Philadelphia can contact the poet laureate committee at the Free Library to have their work considered.
Healing Verse also provides resources for suicide prevention, housing, and substance abuse. The hotline is supported by the Kelly Writers House and the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Mayson’s own poetry focuses on the difficulties and triumphs of the immigrant experience. She is an alumna of Temple University, Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and Villanova University School of Business.
She is the author of She Was Once Herself and a chapbook, Mocha Melodies. Mayson has received a Pew Fellowship in Literature, among other honors, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an Emerging Writer’s Fellow with the Aspen Institute.