Great Poems Work Onstage, On a Page by John Bender

Onstage or on the page: Where do your poems fit best? And which do you think is more important, more valid?

After a recent reading by a popular Los Angeles poet, I couldn’t wait to buy his book. His reading was fun, lively and creative, and his performance wowed those of us in the audience.

This guy is a fantastic poet, I thought.

At home the next morning, I started reading his book. The poems were flat, using common verbs, common language. Not quite cliché, but pretty close to it. The quirky wit he exhibited onstage was not reflected on the page.

“How could his poems be so much fun to hear and so dull to read?” I asked myself.

At another recent reading, a well-known young poet, who has won national awards, read from his printed work. The poems were all about the same length, in the same form and he delivered them hurriedly—without any emotion.

His performance was so dreadful that I felt sorry for any audience members who might have been attending their first reading.

“I sure hope they don’t think all poetry readings are this boring,” I said to myself.

I own one of his books, so I know he’s a talented poet, skilled with imagery and fresh phrasing, but the audience never connected with his work, and I could tell he was disappointed afterward.

And I remain disappointed with both poets. Maybe even angry.

We live in a time when most people have no time or respect for poetry. They don’t read or buy poetry books. They don’t subscribe to poetry magazines. They don’t attend poetry readings.

They think poetry is made from predictable rhymes focused on lofty celestial topics devoid of any links to human reality. They think it’s as dry as their fifth-grade textbooks.

They are wrong, and we need to show them.

Real poetry is alive. It makes us want to cry, laugh, gasp. It fills us with dread and joy. It’s about what is happening in the car at the stoplight next to us. It’s about the neighbor’s dog howling through the night. It’s about that weird waiter who followed Uncle Frank to his car.

Real poetry is not safe, not sterile, and it’s not just for the stage and not just for the page. It’s not just for the slams and not just for the journals. It’s for both.

We have to start behaving like ambassadors of poetry. For many people, we’re the best poets—sometimes the only poets—they will ever meet.

So if you’re strong on the page, practice your readings for the stage. And if you’re fantastic onstage, spend some time improving the basics of your craft, so your poems also wow on the page.

This isn’t just some conceit of mine. It’s something the best poets from the past have focused on, something the best poets of the future will do well. Something we have to do to make poetry vital to people’s lives.

If you are in doubt, go to your nearest bookstore or library and find a copy of “Poetry Speaks Expanded,” which includes CDs with recordings of famous poets reading their works. Or if you are a stranger to slam poetry, find a copy of “The Spoken Word Revolution Redux.”

If not those books, just start looking. There are plenty of excellent writing guides and recordings of poets reading their works. Just get to it!

Let’s make a pact to have our work connect both on the stage and on the page. We owe it to poetry, to our readers, and to ourselves. Let there be commerce between us!

John Bender is a journalist and poet from Moreno Valley. He is one of the founders of Poets in Distress, a Southern California poetry performance troupe.