National Poetry Epoch by John Bender

If April’s really the cruelest month, per our old American expat T.S. Eliot, why is it National Poetry Month?

One month is too short, and poetry desires thoughtful reflection, emotional investment and delight, not brief periods of frenzy—post one poem a day on Facebook, maybe someone will notice amid all the social-media noise.

So, given the power vested in me as this week’s grumpy, yet hopeful, Inlandia Literary Journeys columnist, I hereby declare 2015-2016 as National Poetry Epoch. Forget April. We have a great year ahead of us.

Skeptical? Well, at least for the Inland area, this year already has proved momentous.

The Library of Congress recently named former UC Riverside professor Juan Felipe Herrera as poet laureate of the United States for 2015-16. He officially begins in September with events at the library’s National Book Festival.

Herrera, who just finished his term as California’s poet laureate, becomes the second US poet laureate with strong ties to UCR. Best-selling poet Billy Collins, who served as national laureate from 2001-2003, received a masters in English from the university in 1965 and earned a doctorate in Romantic Poetry at UCR in 1971.

So forget about the people from LA who look down on our area. Forget about those on the East Coast who don’t even know we’re here. We’re no literary wasteland. We can boast of two poet laureates who lived here, worked here and breathed the same smog we breathe.

I’m not familiar enough with Collins’ work to know whether his time in the Inland area is reflected in his poems, but I know that this area’s stark beauty and working-class mixing bowl of huddled masses have informed Herrera’s poems.

And I know that Herrera will welcome our help making his time as US laureate a tremendous time of poems and poetry—an epoch of enthusiasm!

While he was at UCR and during his time as California’s top poet, Herrera joined then-Inlandia laureate Gayle Brandeis, Inlandia Executive Director Cati Porter and me at a guerrilla reading in downtown Riverside.

Our aim was to surprise the workers and businessmen at lunchtime with a surprise poetry reading. It wasn’t as guerrilla as I wanted it to be, because when the state’s poet laureate is going to read, you alert the city fathers.

And so, amplified by a small public address system powered by a battery from a defunct 1963 Buick—the whole contraption contained in the back of a child’s wagon—we brought poetry to downtown Riverside’s pedestrian mall.

During that November 2013 event, which you can find on YouTube by searching for “California Poet Laureate holds impromptu-style reading downtown,” Herrera was the pied piper of poems, the ambassador of allusion—clearly a guy who relishes sharing poetry.

He released more energy than that Buick battery, inviting passersby to compose their own poems on the spot. He made me and his other co-readers feel like the most important poets on the planet, even translating one of my lines into a cool Spanish phrase, “¡Raja la calabaza!” (which of course I’ve incorporated into the text of the poem.)

During his California term, Herrera brought poetry to other unexpected places, reading at the re-opening of the Oakland Bay Bridge and inspiring hundreds to join him in writing “The Most Incredible and Biggest Poem on Unity in the World.”

I have no doubt that he plans even bigger unifying events during his term as national laureate, so why wait?

As poets, literary fans and readers, let’s all pledge to share poems with others during the next year. Let’s invite friends to breakfast and give them a reading while they digest. Let’s volunteer at schools and teach the children to write poems, let’s give free readings at hospitals, bus stops!

Let’s go to readings wherever they’re held. Let’s buy poetry books, attend poetry workshops.

Let’s write love poems for poetry.

It’s our turn. It’s our epoch. Juan Felipe needs our help. We have work to do.


To learn about upcoming readings and Inland literary events, go to inlandiainstitute.org

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.