TCS: Poems That Ride on the Tongue and Must Be Heard

Good Morning!


Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.

The first function of poetry is to tell the truth,
to learn how to do that, to find what you
really think and what you really feel.

– June Jordan


Most Sundays, I sit down at the computer with some idea of what I’m going to put together for Monday here at the Coffee Shop.

Yesterday, I had nothing. So I started surfing the internet.

The opening paragraph of an essay called Spoken Word and Being Heard hit home: “In a world of seven billion-plus souls, one of our deepest human needs often goes unfulfilled – the need to be heard.  That may be one reason why the Spoken Word movement, once a subculture on the fringes of the mainstream, is gaining widespread acceptance around the world.”

The website, Life-Built Poems, was one I hadn’t stumbled on before. The writer, identified as “Netta,” only got 18 comments, but I think the piece merits a lot more recognition.

If you’re curious, here’s the link:


The part that most spoke to me in Spoken Word and Being Heard was this:

My benchmark “best poem” has no words.  It was an exchange between my friend Wide Garcia, who chairs the meeting of the Maui Live Poets that meets in the Makawao Library on the third Wednesday night of each month, and a young man with Aspergers Syndrome.

During one of our regular meetings, we were doing a round-robin, where all of the poets in attendance took a turn to present a poem to the crowd.  A young man came in midway through the first session and sat down in an empty chair.  He sat quietly and watched as the poets read or spoke their work, watched as the audience responded.

It’s Wide’s practice to ask everyone who comes to the gatherings if they would like to present a poem.  After the first round was done and the poets were mingling and talking story, he approached the young man, who was sitting there, seemingly detached from the hubbub around him, and asked whether the boy had work he would like to share.

The young man did not answer, so Wide asked again, looking deeply into the teenager’s eyes.

There was a pause.  Then the boy lifted his right hand with all of his fingertips held together like a spear-point and touched the middle of his chest, fingers pointed right at his heart.  He gestured, moving his arm outward towards Wide and opened his hand, palm-up, as if he were offering his heart.

Wide made the same gesture back to the boy and grinned at him.  The boy just looked back at him out of his own world.

And, for me, that became my benchmark “good poem” – the one I remember every time I start constructing another one.  A good poem offers up your heart to another person.  It’s even better when that other person offers up his or her heart back.


Nessa’s remarkable story of connection is the opposite of my story of confrontation.

Beyond Baroque is a literary arts center in Venice, California. For Los Angeles, it is considered “venerable” because it was founded in 1968, and it’s still there.

In the late 1970s, I put together and directed a theatrical piece using The Common Woman poems and the longer poem, A Woman is Talking to Death, by poet Judy Grahn, for the Los Angeles Feminist Theatre. Our venue was to be a church which had been converted into a community center in Venice, and often hosted small theatre groups and poetry readings of a leftist persuasion. But one of my actresses had a connection to Beyond Baroque, so our first public performance became a reader’s theatre version of the show – because there was no stage then at Beyond Baroque – just a small space at the front of the room for poets to sit on a stool and recite or read.  They scourged up an additional three stools for our performers, and allowed us to go first, since we would be having our final dress rehearsal back at the church immediately afterward.

We received an enthusiastic round of applause from the crowd, followed by a buzz of conversation – a very good sign.

Except for one extremely upset young man who followed us out into the lobby to complain about what we had done. He insisted that “the words” of a poem should be left “to speak for themselves,” and should not be performed, but just read aloud without emphasis. 

To which I responded that poetry had been an oral art form for far longer than it had been a written one, and that it would have died out long ago if the bards had droned their poems in a monotone. He then claimed that I had no understanding of poetry, which I countered by saying I wrote poetry myself, and I certainly recited it with meaning and gusto.

Then we came to the crux for the matter for him – we had ruined the audience for all the other poets, and we shouldn’t have been allowed to go first, since we were reciting someone else’s work.

At that point, we left, and went to our dress rehearsal.

Our show was very successful with audiences – after our run at the church, we were asked to perform at a cabaret for three weekends, performed at a women’s prison (quite an experience), and then got an invitation to be part of the Los Angeles Garden Theatre Festival for two performances – the first time we had a stage with a real light board, and a much larger audience. Each time, I had to completely rework the blocking to fit the new spaces, but the power of the words performed out loud hit audiences in much the same way, no matter the venue.

For me, the young man who wanted to read his work like an automaton was the sum total of all the decades of bad teaching in American schools about poetry.

There is nothing wrong with putting poems on a printed page, but there is something horribly wrong about trapping all of Poetry there.  

So I was delighted when Spoken Word poets began breaking out of the closed-off world of literary magazines and chapbooks, where the readers were mostly other poets or academics.  And with the advent of the Worldwide Web and You Tube, they were found by a global audience.


I think this poem is an example of a poem on the page that is a good poem, but doesn’t work very well out loud:

War Teractys

by Maggie Emmett

is good
for business
both big and small
Profits will rise and make inflation fall
But soldiers, sailors, airmen, warriors all
must heed the call
face fighting

“War Techtractys” by Maggie Emmett appeared in Yellow Moon Issue 17, Winter 2005

Maggie Emmett is a writer, poet and editor in Adelaide South Australia. She works for Poetry & Art Oz, producing poetry performances in Art Galleries.


I wrote this some time ago about Judy Grahn’s poems:

“There are poems that need to be seen on the page because the placement of each word, each punctuation mark, each space is part of the poem.

There are other poems that ride on the tongue, and must be heard, because they have the lithe muscle of the dancer and the breath of the singer in them.

Judy Grahn (1940 –  ) writes poems so out loud they will stagger you.

When I first read The Common Woman Poems, and a woman is talking to death, they were in thin smudgy chapbooks of reproduced typewriter manuscript, but they made me get up and move as I spoke them aloud. It was the early 1970s, and elegant computer-driven self-publishing wasn’t even a glint on the horizon.

But the long line of ancient poet-singers who predate the written word by centuries would recognize her.”


from The Common Women Poems:


Ella, in a square apron, along Highway 80

She’s a copperheaded waitress,
tired and sharp-worded, she hides
her bad brown tooth behind a wicked
smile, and flicks her ass
out of habit, to fend off the pass
that passes for affection.
She keeps her mind the way men
keep a knife—keen to strip the game
down to her size. She has a thin spine,
swallows her eggs cold, and tells lies.
She slaps a wet rag at the truck drivers
if they should complain. She understands
the necessity for pain, turns away
the smaller tips, out of pride, and
keeps a flask under the counter. Once,
she shot a lover who misused her child.
Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced
and given the child away. Like some isolated lake,
her flat blue eyes take care of their own stark
bottoms. Her hands are nervous, curled, ready to scrape.
The common woman is as common as a rattlesnake.


Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop

She holds things together, collects bail,
makes the landlord patch the largest holes.
At the Sunday social she would spike
every drink, and offer you half of what she knows,
which is plenty. She pokes at the ruins of the city
like an armored tank; but she thinks
of herself as a ripsaw cutting through
knots in wood. Her sentences come out
like thick pine shanks
and her big hands fill the air like smoke.
She’s a mud-chinked cabin in the slums,
sitting on the doorstep counting
rats and raising 15 children,
half of them her own. The neighborhood
would burn itself out without her;
one of these days she’ll strike the spark herself.
She’s made of grease
and metal, with a hard head
that makes the men around her seem frail.
The common woman is as common as a nail.

Both poems are from The Common Women Poems, which are included in love belongs to those who do the feeling: New & Selected Poems (1966-2006), © 2008 by Judy Grahn – Red Hen Press

Judy Grahn (1940 – ) American poet, author, activist, and scholar, was born in Chicago, but grew up in New Mexico. After she joined the Air Force, she was discharged at age 21 for being openly gay. In the 1960s, she moved to San Francisco, and co-founded the Women’s Press Collective in 1969. Grahn was also a founding member of the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement. She is an editor and contributor to Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. Grahn has given thousands of readings and lectures, frequently collaborating on programs with dancer-choreographer Anne Blethenthal, and with singer-songwriter Anne Carol Mitchell. Her honors include an American Book Review Award, an American Book Award, an American Library Award, and a Founding Foremothers of Women’s Spirituality Award. Since 1997 Triangle Publishers, after awarding Grahn a Lifetime Achievement Award in Lesbian Letters, have issued an annual Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award.


The closing words of A Woman is Talking to Death were always met by our audiences with several seconds of silence:

. . . I want nothing left of me for you, ho death
except some fertilizer
for the next batch of us
who do not hold hands with you
who do not embrace you
who try not to work for you
or sacrifice themselves or trust
or believe you, ho ignorant
death, how do you know
we happened to you?

wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor

– excerpt from A Woman is Talking to Death, © 1974 by Judy Grahn – Women’s Press Collective


Then, almost always, over half the audience stayed to talk with us, including men who had been dragged there by their wives or girlfriends, but experienced something completely different from the boredom or discomfiture they had expected.

Words on a page can be very powerful, but if you really want to be heard, speak those words out loud, with everything they make you feel and think and dream.





About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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2 Responses to TCS: Poems That Ride on the Tongue and Must Be Heard

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