Poetic inspiration, for author, professor and artist Dr. Joshua Bennett, springs from the wonder of his childhood, and more recently, fatherhood. “What did little Josh think was beautiful? What did he think was worth praising? I try to praise those things. And thankfully, now I’ve got my son… he inspires me so much.” Beyond childhood, Bennett says, “I find real inspiration in my my parents’ dreaming. And I grew up with multiple family members with disabilities. I knew from the time I was a little boy that people showed up in all sorts of minds and bodies, and that they were all worthy of celebration and care and understanding. I wouldn’t be the person I am without that experience.”
Bennett captivated the Nobles assembly audience on January 25, sharing his journey from his childhood in Yonkers to the Ivies, and the people and experiences that shaped his writing and worldview. In his process, Bennett draws from his academic arsenal and powerful memory while also intentionally unlearning the conventions that inhibit creativity. “Part of what I think I’m writing about in my poetry is that it took me years to get back to the things I loved as a child, because I was trained in schools that taught me those things were nothing … it wasn’t until I finished grad school I realized I used to have a much better ear for music.” Bennett’s poems are characterized by hope, tenderness and wonder; he also illuminates inequity and brutality. Above all, it is honest.
Bennett’s life arc sparkles with remarkable moments. Amongst the countless honors for his artistry and scholarship was the 2009 invitation from former President Barack Obama to perform at an historic White House poetry jam. Bennett’s selection, “Tamara’s Opus,” explored his relationship with his sister, who is deaf. He followed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s preview of his revolutionary Broadway musical, Hamilton, and velvet-voiced thespian James Earl Jones’ recitation from Shakespeare’s Othello. That same year, sharing a soundcheck with an incandescent Beyoncé Knowles showed Bennett the path to excellence is to “practice the way you want to play.” He realized, “If I want to be good, really good, I have to do this every day. Now I do. Every day, when I walk around, I’m doin’ a poem; I make breakfast, doin’ a poem; in the shower, doin’ a poem; kicking it with my son—it’s poems. … It’s all reps.”
Before Joshua Bennett was mingling with a president and a Queen Bee, he was a little boy growing up poor in New York City, raised on the rhythms of music and the church. “I wanted to be a preacher,” he recalls of his childhood dream. His voice is rooted in both sermons and hip-hop, and the connections and tensions between those rich oral traditions.
Lifting listeners with his lyricism, Bennett opened with an ode to his first group of 12-year old students, “Say It, Sing It If The Spirit Leads” (After Vievee Francis). He segued into a love poem, “Balaenoptera,” sparked by his discovery that a blue whale’s heart is the size of a car. At age 20, he hoped “to give someone a love that big one day,” eventually finding her in his wife, Pam.
“Say it / That every single day is a toast to living / an ode to the way we make survival an art. / My classroom is a self-love anthem in nine parts. / Together we unlove shame, we dream silly, we sing what we cannot say anywhere else. … We will honor the dead / praise what they left behind / No one can make us afraid of being alive. / My people stay alive, they always have. / Say ‘always have.’ / Say ‘always will.’ ”
—Dr. Joshua Bennett, “Say It/Sing It If the Spirit Leads: Ars Poetica (after Vievee Francis)”
As a teen, Bennett described commuting to elite Rye Country Day, a predominantly white independent school, where he learned one of his greatest lessons from Thomas, an older Black student at Rye: authenticity. “That meant a lot to me. I stopped altering my voice, I stopped pretending that I wasn’t interested in the things I was interested in. I started a poetry slam club.”
He encouraged Nobles students to be true to themselves, as well. The strength to show up as yourself, he said, comes from “finding your people,” those who love and support you. “And get a dog,” he half-joked. His illustrious career as a poet didn’t start off glamorous; his first gig was at a college dining hall between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Subway. But then, a group of students stopped to listen, and he was hooked. Bennett said, “Two years ago, my wife and I bought a house. We bought that house with money I made from poetry. That meant a lot to me. I was raised by poor and working people to believe that that the things you say matter and that you can create a different world with them. I never imagined the world I have now. And so, I’m glad I made that choice.” With all his honors, he credits his family and friends with keeping him grounded. “That humbling is necessary, like when you run into your uncle, who says, tell me something meaningful—tell me something I can bring back to the neighborhood.”
Now teaching poetry at Dartmouth, where most of his students are not literature majors, Bennett says, “I have to make the case for poetry every week, and in a good way. Right? I have to say, even if you’re not going to become a poet, or if you don’t like poetry, this is good for your mind. It’s going to help you connect to beauty. And in moments of difficulty, you have a little room in your head, you can go in there, and there’s a symphony. Without your phone, without anyone else to occupy your time. You will have a weapon against boredom, if you learn to love literature, and history.”
In closing, Bennett gave this advice: “Find something you love, and beautify it. Learn to love your mind and beautify it, so that you can come back to it over and over again.”
Following assembly, Bennett continued the conversation in a packed Towles Auditorium, answering questions about topics ranging from showing up as one’s authentic self to “deleterious definitions” of what it means to be a man in society. One particularly poignant question about Bennett’s Ivy-strewn path was, “Did you ever feel like you were leaving your community or your friends or your family behind?” His advice: “You can’t get away from that. If that’s the place that makes you, to the best of your ability, wherever you go, whether you go to Wall Street, or you become an educator, or become an artist, rep that place in a way that feels meaningful and true. Honor it for what it was and what it can be.”
For the last part of Bennett’s visit, he joined a section of Edgar De Leon’s and Alden Mauck’s Race and Identity class. Among their discussion topics was Bennett’s work on the AP African American Studies curriculum now under fire by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Bennett wishes more people understood the curriculum’s global transdisciplinary value, as a scholarly collaboration between eminent literary academics, historians and sociologists. But its value, he says, goes beyond academics, to recognizing the contributions of African Americans in this country and knowing more of our nation’s story. “My hunch is that once people your age know about things like redlining, once they understand what a lynching was … You will just have a different sense of history …’ This is part of what you would learn in African American Studies.” Bennett closes on an optimistic note: I want us to have a healthier conversation about race, class, gender and disability in this country. And I think poetry can be part of how we get there.”
Learn more about Dr. Bennett’s work and explore his performance at drjoshuabennett.com. His fifth book, Spoken Word: A Cultural History, explores the roots and profound impact of the form, and is available March 28, 2023 from Knopf. Another good source for learning about Dr. Bennett is Brinkerhoff Poetry.