9/30: Ten Questions With Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett

I’m learning now, as I get more familiar with him as a writer/performer/thinker, that to see Joshua Bennett twice is to see a completely evolved artist. It is absolutely easy to find boxes for artists based off of their background, origins, and a whole lotta other nonsense. What I find to be significantly more difficult is having an ability to allow those same artists to grow and become more than what we expect them to be. What I like about Joshua Bennett is that he doesn’t give an audience much of an option to do anything other than bend their expectations. I read his work, sure. But a good portion of my consumption is spent trying to figure out how his brain got him to the glorious end result. I appreciate the urgency with which he gives us his experience, and how that spreads into his other endeavors, making sure marginalized voices are heard and given a platform. Quincy Jones once talked about Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson by saying “If you blink, you’ll miss another evolution. You’ll miss him getting closer and closer to figuring it all out.” 

What a joy to have artists/creatives like that at our fingertips, even now.

The first question I can find myself pushed to ask about is family. I really like the way that family oozes into your work. And not only family, but community and friendship. You tend to honor those things in a way that really connects on a level that isn’t built out of disposable emotion. One of my favorite things that I’ve seen is the video of you performing “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” where, prior to reading that brilliant piece, you share a very genuine and touching moment with your mother and aunt. If you could, talk about family/closeness in relationships, and how it plays into your creative process?

 

During the Q&A portion of a talk/performance I gave this weekend, a student asked me if I could imagine being a writer if I had grown up in a different household. That question was difficult to answer, mostly because I’m still working towards figuring out who I am and what I believe outside of the culture of my family. My poetry, my scholarly writing, and the interpersonal relationships I value most often feel like a direct response to the ways my parents trained me to think about the world, race and religion being the two categories that feel most salient as of late. Most of my poems are about the people I love, and I’m not always sure why. It may have something to do with my ongoing desire to pay back, in some small way, all that has been given to me since I was very young: the books, the music, the freedom to think and be strange and imagine the world as if it were otherwise. This mix of gratitude and guilt animates much of what I bring to the page. Which is all to say, I tend to think of my relationship to and with family as my work’s condition of possibility.

 

 

I visited this in my first interview that I did this month with Scott Woods, but I’ve been really excited to get your ideas on it as well. So often, I see you referred to as a “spoken word artist”, and people referring to your work as “spoken word”. And if I’m being entirely honest, I think your contributions to the craft are not only necessary, but above being placed in a box that may be easier for the general public to consume. How do you feel about any divide there may be with being referred to as a “poet”, or a “spoken word artist”?

 

I know that I literally just used a Q&A session as a point of reference, but I’m not sure how to answer this question the way I want to answer it without this story, so here goes: This past February, after a show at Macalester College with my performance collective,  an older white guy in the audience asked if there was any difference between the performance he had just seen and, in his own words, “people up there rapping.” Though I eventually answered by talking about the fact that hip-hop is its own genre with various conventions and aesthetic properties (including, most of the time, instrumentals or some other form of music, which was absent from our reading), the importance of oral poetry in various African diasporic traditions, and the problem with the deeply scriptocentric ways a lot of us have been taught to think about poetry (if it’s not on the page then it is automatically some other thing that we need a different word for), I started off my response by asking him if he would ever ask a group of white artists the same question. For me, it just seemed like our collective blackness interrupted dude’s ability to approach the work as poetry, or to see it outside of a certain way of thinking about black cultural production, which he appeared to have no language for outside of hip-hop.

 

My problem with the way terms like “slam poet” and “spoken word artist” have been deployed in my experience is that they can become a way of marking a false dichotomy between written poetry, or even “strong writing” (which gets coded as traditional, white, and requiring a certain kind of study or rigor) and slam poetry which is always already marked as overtly political, racialized, angry, and devoid of the sort of intellectual labor that marks great poets, whose proper province is, ostensibly, the written word. I’m interested in what these terms connote for those unfamiliar with poetry of any kind. What draws someone who is not an avid reader of poetry to a slam as opposed to a poetry reading at a local bookstore? What is it that folks expect of one and not the other?

 

I have always liked the idea of The Strivers Row. I’m still relatively new to the art in all of its forms, but one of the first introductions I had was catching a Strivers Row show during some downtime I had covering a band on the road. I really like thinking of the potential of collectives working and reaching for the same overall goal. How did that come together, and how much of the interaction within the group is a collaborative, art-growing thing?

 

I would love to hear more about the way you heard about TSR, in large part because I’m consistently surprised by the way folks describe their introduction to the group. For some, it happened in their classrooms in middle school, high school, or college, for others it was the BNV documentary, and still others were just looking at poetry videos at YouTube one day and stumbled across one of us, which eventually led them to discovering the larger collective.

 

The Strivers Row started back in November 2010, after I called up my manager, Latoya Bennett-Johnson, and talked to her at length about the idea of bringing together a group of poets I had met through slam (or, in Alysia’s case, at a diversity conference my senior year of high school) over the years. Carvens, Miles, Alysia and Jasmine were all good friends of mine, so the choice of who I wanted to come aboard wasn’t too difficult. I had worked alongside all of these folks in one way or another and knew that each brought a specific set of skills to the table that could do some cool work once assembled. Zora came on-board two years later, and the group was complete.

 

Interestingly enough, I would say that the “art-growing” process differs from person to person in the group. Though we all help each other edit for the page and performance, there are definitely clusters within the group that spend a lot more time with each others work depending on shared interest (several of us are actors, some of us are more interested in publishing than others, etc.), geographical location at a given moment, and so forth.

 

I’ve talked with a few poets this month about relationship with the internet. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the music on Childish Gambino’s “Because The Internet” album, but it did spark me to think of the internet in a much more unique way. What we owe to the people we interact with in that space, and HOW we interact in that space. You have a strong following, across multiple platforms. Do you feel a responsibility to give a certain type of access, or a certain type of message?

 

This is a difficult question, in part because my recent experiences with therapy have pushed me to try to open myself up to different approaches to public writing, and a heightened level of trust in my audience. What you’ll see from me soon, and hopefully have already as of late, is a willingness to share poems that touch on aspects of my life that I haven’t talked all that much about in my performance work. This includes but is not limited to my relationship to violence (poems like “Clench” and “Fade” that were recently published in The Collagist and CURA respectively) and my experience as one of four black boys in my high school’s graduating class (“Masquerade Ball” in a forthcoming issue of Callaloo). Your use of the word responsibility here is fitting, not in the least because I feel like the work demands a certain level of engagement. If I’m not going to be honest with the page, and do the hard work of self-investigation every time I sit down to write, then there’s no point in me doing this anymore. I feel like I owe that to my audience, and to myself. That is my primary responsibility: to live into a kind of vulnerability and reckless imagination that might make an encounter with my work worth remembering.

 

I once read this interview with Sam Cooke, shortly before he was shot, where he talked about what it was like to watch Jackie Wilson perform. He talked about how you could watch Jackie Wilson and truly think his entire body was on fire. I find myself reminded of Jackie Wilson when I watch you perform your work. If you catch old Jackie Wilson, like 50’s Jackie, there are moments where you almost see the work that went into the music leaving his body as he performed, and being replaced with a kind of joy. How important is your relationship with the stage?

 

Wow. Well, first I feel like I should let you know how much of an honor it is to be mentioned anywhere in the proximity of Jackie Wilson or his singular gifts. Since I was a child, he’s been one of my favorite artists (my dad always talked about him, Eddie Kendricks and Stevie Wonder when I was a kid) in part because of the joy you describe. Jackie had this way of making every movement appear effortless, it’s like dude’s whole body was pure energy in a given direction.  I love what you said here about the labor of rehearsal for that reason. So often, powerful performances like his are chalked up to something akin to natural talent, when it is often practice, and commitment to craft, that makes such singular moments on stage possible.  

 

Though I don’t think of myself as a transcendent performer (I hope to be one day, and am always working towards that end) I do think that my ongoing relationship to the stage is marked in part by my belief that it, more than almost anything else in my life, holds the potential for me to be great at something I loved deeply. That’s rare, you know? I love that the stage helped make that possible, that a dude like me who has always struggled with knowing what to say to people could get up there and speak to audiences full of strangers for a living. On the flip side, I have also struggled tremendously as of late not to use the stage as a mask, as a way of keeping at bay a lot of the more difficult, painful emotions I wrestle with on the daily. Performing brings me great happiness, but I have to constantly remind myself not to treat it like a cure.

 

The thing you have in common with my fiancée is that you’re both on track to get a PhD. I’ve seen up close how intense that process is. I’m going to ask two questions about this, somewhat connected. The first has to do with education and art. How necessary do you think it is for art and education to be able to intersect?

 

Here, I think it’s important for me as someone who has been in school without any sort of break for 23 years—which, by the way, feels weird to say aloud/render in print—to mark that I think there is a critical difference between school and education. When it’s good, I think all art is a kind of education, if we can imagine education as the process through which we come to know ourselves and the world around us more deeply. I’m interested in how we can think towards and live into ways of educating ourselves and each other that run counter to how so many of us have been trained to imagine school or what school is supposed to do. Studying, which is something related to but separate from school, is critical. If you’re a writer, you should be always be writing, and reading (though not necessarily always reading about writing), but you should also always be experiencing, right?

 

This is why I think that study groups—as well as Fred Moten’s beautiful writing on what he terms black study—are so invaluable. In the study group, one can play cards and drink and play music and learn something surprising/troubling about Hemingway all within the span of a few hours, without having to necessarily block out the social field. Formal education can be a great resource. But there are many many ways to become a more literate, empathetic person, and none of them absolutely require one to go to college or a graduate program. Still, if you think you want into an MFA program or apply to graduate school, I would say go for it. I know that the schools I’ve gone to have all helped make me a better writer and sharper thinker, and for that I am immensely grateful. So yeah. There’s that.

 

Slightly related, here’s a short, broad question that I hope will pull some good insight out of you. What are your thoughts on the evolution of black possibility? The things we’re told we can do/access?

 

The deeper I get into my dissertation research (which, briefly, is on the ways in which 20th century black authors write about their relationship to and with animals) the more I am forced to reckon with the uncanny persistence, and imagination, of diasporic peoples. Through slavery and colonization, and even now in the afterlives of both, we somehow manage to keep on keeping on. This is a central message of so many of my recent show, that is, that black writing is always already an intervention, an interruption of a historical discourse in which we were said to have no imagination, no originality, no poetry

 

Kinfolks bills itself as a literary journal of black expression. I really enjoyed the first issue and felt it more than lived up to that billing. Now, as you undertake a second issue, what can people expect from the future of Kinfolks, and do you think that there is a void being filled?

 

This second issue has some incredible work in it, and features a couple of folks who are quite literally some of the favorite writers in the world, so that’s exciting. In the future, people should expect us to defy expectations and expand beyond what one might expect from a literary journal at the level of both content and programming. This may or may not involve banana pudding, workshops, a block party, spades, or some heretofore unimagined combination of all four.

 

In a message exchange once, we talked about rebelling against the way that you came into the craft, and finding yourself feeling more in the work. That really stuck with me, because I think for many, if you’re doing it long enough, that rebellion is inevitable. Can you expand on what you meant by that, and maybe talk about how important it is to have a healthy relationship with growth?

 

My recent commitment to rebelling the approaches to writing that come easiest to me is, I think, largely due to the poetry I’ve been reading and re-reading as of late (Jamaal May, Ilya Kaminsky, Natalie Diaz, Roger Reeves, Evie Shockley, Campbell McGrath, Patricia Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, the list goes on and on) as this work pushed me to break away at times from my long-standing commitment to a certain kind linear, narrative poetry and just see what happens. All of these authors remind me on the regular how important it is to dwell with subject matter and approaches to craft that make me uncomfortable, ones that usher me away from what has worked in the past into something that might not be cute but demands a kind of valor. As of late, I’ve been a bit more experimental with my live sets for just this reason. . I want to discover something new in old work .I want to surprise myself every night

 

 Finally, maybe simple, maybe not. But, give me five books that have shaped you as an artist and a person.

 

Maaaaaan. Only five?! Alright. Off top, my list probably looks like:

 

  1. Race Matters (at 17, I read it every day on the way to school)
  2. Song of Solomon (1. Milkman Dead and Guitar are two of my favorite characters, all-time 2. Every time I think about The Seven Days it forces me to wrestle with all sorts of questions about ethics and the black moral imagination in the face of slavery and its afterlife)
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God (The flood scene is pretty much everything)
  4. Salvage The Bones (Jesmyn Ward is one of my favorite writers, and is able to write masterfully at the intersection of joy and terror in a way that absolutely unmoored me when I first encountered this book)
  5. Wind In A Box (I’ve seen you write elsewhere that Terrance was a big influence for you, in part because he represented a voice that helped you find your own. I can say without a doubt that all of Terrance’s work, and this book in particular, helped me work towards a deeper commitment to the page in a way that felt true and worthwhile. I owe him a tremendous debt in this regard)

 

Joshua, thank you for your time. I look forward to moving out east and building on these wonderful interactions.

 

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JOSHUA BENNETT hails from Yonkers, NY. He is a third-year doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University, Callaloo Fellow, and member of the NYC-based performance collective, The Strivers Row. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, The Collagist, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. He is also the founding editor of Kinfolks Quarterly.

 

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