Poet Joshua Bennett On Performing for Obama and The Responsibility of Social Media [INTERVIEW]

I still remember hearing my first spoken word performance during my sophomore year at UC Irvine. Previously, I had never had enjoyable experiences with poetry and saw it as a torture device created by dead, angry people who hated humanity because their girlfriend stood them up at the local jousting event in the 18th century. But in that cramped room, amongst my peers and the university’s poets, I experienced firsthand the power behind moving a poem from the page to the stage. With each verse these poets told us their stories of friend-zoning, identity and heartbreak. In those moments, a room full of strangers felt a connection to one another from the words presented to them on the stage.

So when I got the confirmation that I was going to interview the award-winning spoken word artist Joshua Bennett, I nearly fell off my chair — actually I did fall off my chair but that was due to my own clumsiness. Bennett wrote his first spoken word poem when he was 17 and has since gone on to recite at such events as the Sundance Film Festival, the NAACP Image Awards and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White. He was also featured in HBO’s “Brave New Voices” special and created original work for Ralph Lauren’s online campaign “The Rugby Poet’s Club.”

As a founding member of the performance collective The Strivers Row, Bennett sees social media as a way of capturing the group’s talent and passion to be shared around the world. During my interview with Bennett, he shared stories of performing at the White House, his love for his PhD program at Princeton and how using YouTube can change the world.

How did you originally get into spoken word and poetry?

Joshua Bennett: I’ve been writing in some form since I was about 5. I used to write short stories when I was a little kid — mostly just stuff about magic and pirates. That was probably mostly derived from “Power Rangers.” My first poems I wrote probably when I was in Mrs. McCormick’s English class in 7th grade. Then my first spoken word poem I was 17. The first time I saw a large scale spoken word poetry performance was at Sarah Lawrence College at a Hurricane Katrina relief benefit they had. It’s funny; I told this story so many times, and it takes different forms every time. There was a young woman at the time that I was interested in and she’d invited me, and in the back of my mind I think I thought it was some sort of date? I was very socially inept in certain ways in high school, but when I got there she was like sitting with her friends and I didn’t even get to sit with her. But what did happen, I got to see an amazing show by poets from Urban Word NYC which is a really prominent organization in NYC that provides writing opportunities for young people. It changed my life. I went home that weekend and wrote my first piece.

Is it very different transitioning from poetry to spoken word?

Yeah, I mean I guess it depends what folks mean by poetry in terms of thinking about both form and public performance. Spoken word always just felt more like a conversation. It wasn’t just the embodying force of words on a page, but it really had more to do with, how can I turn this written piece of work that has been memorized into something that’s more a piece of theatre or a conversation between myself and, not a reader per se, but an audience? It really became an exercise in storytelling. And even now when people ask me what I do, I never say I’m a spoken word artist. I always say either I’m a poet or I’m a storyteller or I’m a performance artist.

From the time when you saw your first spoken word performance, how has your career grown from there? What were you involved with after that?

Very little of it was planned out. I would say hardly any really. I was with Urban Word  for a year. I graduated from high school in 2006, and I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where my freshmen year I tried out and got into a spoken word collective called the “Excelano Project.” I got into “Excelano,” and then at the exact same time there was an organization started up in Philly called the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement. By joining PYPM I got the chance to do this international poetry festival called Brave New Voices, and I was on the team that won Brave New Voices. Then I got invited to do the NAACP Image Awards the next year as well as my performance at the White House. It’s been great to be part of a network with such amazing people that have looked out for me for quite some time.

The Strivers Row was one of your ideas. Why did you start the group, and what were the goals behind it?

For me, the Strivers Row was about the company. Kind of what’s fascinating about The Strivers Row, I think it’s a unique hybrid of company and collective right to the point where the dawns reach the two and the two are sort of blurred even for us sometimes. We are all really young, we’re all still in school. I thought what would that mean to have a group of performance artists that were all the same age as the people in our audience, that are doing the work and just trying to make a living by just telling stories about our lives?

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, I think there is something about the nature about instant celebrity and small celebrity that I think is really potent. Just the fact that people can cultivate following based on their art really quickly and that you know people. We have started thinking recently about the fact that if you have followings on Facebook and Twitter, you should be giving people both something wonderful, something beautiful, something honest. I think you should be spurring people to action in ways that help increase life chances for young people.

What do you hope people take away from your poetry? Is there a theme that runs through a lot of your poems?

A lot of my poems deal with issues of identity, with race, gender, disability but also issues of faith and cosmology and thinking about what is this thing called “life.” I think if people take anything away I hope it’s the flourishing of life in all its forms is something that is really important to me. I’m anti-violence, I’m anti-death [laughs]. I have a firm commitment to life that was instilled in me very young and has taken on a whole new sort of force and charge for me as an adult.

What inspires you?

My family. The city I live in. When I was in Philly I wrote about Philly. When I was in England I wrote about England, and now being back in NYC as a graduate student at Priceton, that commute to campus I write a lot about space. I write a lot about the love relationships I’m in whether it’s with family or with partners, you know? I’ve loved and been loved by amazing people, and I think that really does inspire me each and every day.

You have all these opportunities that you could have done full time — why did you decide you wanted to go back to school?

That’s a good question! I don’t know! I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was 17. I read, I used to commute two hours a day on two buses and a train to a pretty much all white high school in upstate New York, and I’ll never forget the day I read Cornel West’s “Race Matters.” Picking up that book and just pouring through it everyday on the train, and what stuck with me distinctly was the idea that I could study African American culture for a living. That idea changed my life like that. I feel like I almost owe something to that Joshua on that train who had the moment when he realized that his culture had a place in academia. And I love being a scholar.

Would you recommend spoken word artists create accounts and record on YouTube? How do you think they can set themselves apart?

I would suggest without hesitation that folks who want to get their poetry out into the world set up YouTube accounts; it’s the quickest and easiest way to disseminate your work across the world. Don’t worry too much about setting yourself apart. The work will do that all on its own. Don’t be afraid to let it speak.