2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.
The Millions: Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?
Joshua Bennett: My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.
TM: There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.
JB: Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.
TM: People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.
JB: I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.
TM: I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.
JB: I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.
TM: As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.
JB: That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.
TM: An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.
JB: Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.
TM: They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.
JB: Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?
TM: My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.
JB: I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.
TM: The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.
JB: I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?
TM: It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.
JB: It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.
In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.
TM: As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?
JB: You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.
TM: Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.
JB: For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.
TM: You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]
JB: “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.
Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?
TM: It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.
JB: My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.