By Brian Sonia-Wallace
After a few weeks of playing phone tag, I finally get on the phone with John Hensley, the mastermind behind Flypoet.
“I just confirmed my musicians.” His voice is equal parts relief and excitement: “Marsha Ambrosius and Dwele.”
“The music is what gets people in,” John says of his show, a mix of spoken word and musical acts. “My base always comes but people who have never experienced Flypoet - they come for the music and discover the poetry.”
Flypoet shows are equal parts passion and simmer and both of these musical acts are knockout, Grammy-nominated artists in the R&B and neo-soul genres, respectively, who John knows will “bring the sexy.”
“People are used to the free open mic paradigm of [spoken word] poetry, not a full production,” John tells me. Flypoet is working on changing that with a curated roster of performers who all have serious poetry credentials. “I’ll hear the murmurs sometimes, people whose friends have brought them to the show, who say, ‘this better be worth it.’ Those are my favorite audience members. People who don’t think they like poetry and realize how they can be moved – that’s the audience I want to reach.”
John draws the legacy of poetry back thousands of years to the oral tradition, to mythology and is committed to bringing an update of this original art form out of the shadows and back onto the main stage. “This is important,” John tells me, “Poets don’t just entertain people, they inspire them.”
As a champion of poetry’s relevance, John’s own journey began with a second grade homework assignment and the discovery that language has a musicality – he was hooked. In 1995, a friend brought him to his first open mic and John shared some entries from his journal with complete strangers. “I was journaling through a difficult time, and when we got to the open mic, I was like, ‘Oh, I got stuff for this!’ It took the power out of my pain and people related and thanked me for it.”
John started touring and performing poetry internationally. “Other poets were better than me,” John happily admits, “I just knew how to get myself out there.” He took to performing at jazz clubs, rather than poetry venues. Coming back to LA from his travels, he saw opportunity. “I wanted to make something you could bring a date to,” he tells me, “something with cocktails and good food.” That was in 2000. Sixteen years later, Flypoet attracts national artists and has a following 10,000 strong.
John doesn’t perform poetry at his own shows anymore. “Honestly, my life got better and I wrote less,” he says. He still goes to open mics, sometimes, but prefers to sit in the back and listen. “If I share, I want to be anonymous,” John tells me. “The folks I book outclassed me a long time ago.”
But what John has built is a space and a community. A place where wordsmiths are truly lauded and valued for their art – a poetry show that borrows from the model of the jazz clubs where John got his start. It’s no coincidence, then, that the music is what gets people through the door.
“I’m not worried, now. I got this.” John tells me. “We have a dope show - Marsha Ambrosius and Dwele on top of four of the country’s best poets!”
Tickets are still available but going fast for the 6th Annual Flypoet Under the Stars, which takes place this Saturday, August 6 at 8:00 p.m. Go here to purchase tickets.
And, watch the Performer’s Journey video above to see John, one of his poets and artist Norton Wisdom in action.