Why Dr Joshua Bennett is so important to poetry

Image by Rog Walker
Watch here: Joshua Bennett on Russell Simmons’ Brave New Voices

I first heard of Joshua Bennett on a YouTube crawl at what feels like a very long time ago now. It was a typical night; bedtime routine, candles and some light reading then, Def Jam Poetry before sleep came. He appeared on my feed as a recommendation, and I first encountered a young man from Yonkers, NY reading a spoken word poem called ”10 Things I Want To Say To A Black Woman.” He called out to the female viewer,  ”I’ve seen you crucified too, spread out on billboards to be spiritually impaled by millions of men with eyes like nails.” I’ve been preoccupied with his words ever since.

Next, Russell Simmons’ Brave New Voices based in Philadelphia where a nineteen-year-old Bennett performed ‘Adam and Eve’ so passionately, how were we ever to forget him? They called him the grand slam champion and he went on to prove why. “It’s no longer physical chains that bind. It’s this mindset that forces me to TEVO rap videos and press rewind.”  Weeks later, and I was still hooked. I listened faithfully to ‘Balaenoptera’ on a loop, whilst working at a job I hated, memorizing the sweetness of this narrative he pieced together so beautifully. ‘Darling. Did you know, that a blue whale has a heart the size of a car?” Then ‘Transatlantic Love Manifesto’ revealed his tenderness, his patience, and his delicate need and want for love.  He asks his woman “how about we write a joint letter to the Department of Age and ask for a refund?” His poetry was fresh, daring and exceptionally memorable, his words making fans identify with his predicaments, groan in approval of his stanzas, and click, click, click at the live shows in awe of his talent.

To me, Joshua is king of spoken word. He’s elevated the craft; the distinguishing feature always being that he expresses knowledge and sense through his own eyes. He understands and absorbs his craft, pulling at readers/listeners heart-strings by way of language. This is the making of a great poet.

We were introduced to his family through ‘Levi’ and ‘Tamara’s Opus’, both wonderful and sentimental visions of his siblings.

”I waited
was patient numberless years
anticipating the second
her ears would open like lotuses
and allow my sunlight sentences to seep
into her insides
make her remember all those conversations
we must have had in Heaven
back when God hand-picked us
to be sibling souls centuries ago.”

  • Tamara’s Opus

Levi’s story is revisited in ‘The Sobbing School’  through ‘Still Life with Little Brother’ and Bennett’s take on understanding autism and it’s place in the world. His angle both times on his brother Levi is beautiful and will for sure stir your insides.

”Levi is my brother’s name
& I wrote a poem
about him once
& it wasn’t about him
as much as how fear stalks me
like an inheritance, how I fear
for him with all of my love,
how I know the world
like I know the names
of famous poets & the world
has claws, Levi.”

  • Still Life with Little Brother

sobbing schoolBennett’s parents play a vital role in his writing, starring roles even. He dedicates his published book to his loving mother and father ‘who dreamt of other worlds.’ Their influence on him is rich, resulting in some wonderful poems emerging in ‘The Sobbing School’ centered on family relationships. Bennett revisits his past with his mother and father often but also recalls his parents historical telling of their own upbringing and surroundings. Here, Bennett creates a captivating narrative where his poems reference ”back in the day” or ”my mother claims”, as well as his own memories of his parents like ”I knew Mama was nothing to be fooled with” and ”my father showed up that day dressed up as a man with a son with a rage problem.” His family life is reflected in an open and honest fashion, Bennett giving a true insight into his surroundings growing up in a Latino neighborhood and attending a predominately white private school. His world is vibrant and his probing and examining of it is sensational.

strivers rowJoshua Bennett was once a member of spoken word group, ‘The Strivers Row.’ He introduced the world to such pieces as “Praise Him”, “In case of an emergency: Letter to my nephew”, “Still life with Black Death” and “16 Bars for Kendrick Lamar.” Even amongst a very talented group of six poets, (including Miles Hodges, Alyssa Harris, Jasmine Mans, Zora Howard and Carvens Lissaint) Bennett stood out for me. It was his importance, the urgency to hear his poetic voice. On stage, he is a force. His readings are bound to give you chills; his passion and emotion lingering through his words like electric currents, never seizing to impress and educate. Most importantly, the subject matter is always significant and didactic. Bennett’s poetry has always been alive with current American culture, and a fascinating perceptive understanding of the world. This is also reflected beautifully in his published work.

What makes Bennett so remarkable is that he is unafraid to question American society, white or black. He is at his most impressive and true when discussing race, and his tumblr account “square dancing with giants” is a good place to feel this. His poignant interest in race is clear as the theme of blackness is explored through images and quotes.

Square Dancing with Giants
josh smile
‘‘He doesn’t talk much, about growing up under the iron fist of 1963, but when he does you can almost feel the police batons against your skin.’’

To put it simply, Dr Joshua Bennett’s voices resonates. As an admirer of his poetry, my admiration for spoken word poetry has been heightened and has allowed me to invoke a poetic voice within myself, I never knew existed. ‘Algorithm & Blues’ and ‘The Sobbing School’ have become my most treasured collections of poetry. Through these racially charged anthologies, Joshua reflects the youth and their challenges at school and the workplace in light of being black in America. His delivery not only echoes the astonishing beauty of language, but he is also able to convey clarity, personality and powerful messages in his words. Many can strongly identify with his working-class family background but also his passionate voice, his intriguing stories, and his New York vision. As a black African, I feel his work is notable and current in light of police brutality, but also culturally I feel his work is able to respond to other types of discrimination.

To say I am an admirer of Dr Joshua Bennett, would be an understatement. In my eyes, he is crucial to poetry and vital to young black readers. He is most definitely notable and a force to be reckoned with. His work thus far has changed me; influencing my daily writing and moving me beyond words. Dr Bennett has affected me greatly since that first night I watched his spoken word poetry online. Due to his inspiration, I went on to study a masters in English and Creative Writing and write poetry of my own. In my personal statement when applying, I wrote with his work and voice in mind.

”I’d like to take my writing to a critical place; a place where through honoring myself, I’m able to create work with the potential to change the perceptions of every form of me. Be that for women, Somalis, Black and African people, Muslims and twenty-somethings. I write for my love of the process, the craft and the contentment it brings me. My great joy derives from reading the work of writers who rouse something in me, the ones whose names I can never forget. Staying true to my childhood self (who was a dreamer), I intend to make myself proud by creating work others can love just as I have. My primary responsibility is to write with a sense of vulnerability and at times a reckless imagination so that I may make my work, to a stranger, worth remembering.”

Joshua Bennett greatly opened my eyes to the use of language. Through his work, I’ve been washed over with the creativity of poetry, viewing blackness as a study and of believing in my own vision, my words and life events now becoming art. He has the power to show young black people, wherever they reside, that they too can become a doctor. They too can choose to not be a stereotype or a statistic and are able to use their life experience on the page. Through his inspiration, they can excel, educate themselves and dream big.

I’m sure there are people out there with their own stories on how they discovered Joshua Bennett’s greatness. Comments on countless videos begging for written lyrics of his poems, requesting for more or simply showing him love. I’m the most intrigued by his mind. I’d like to read what he reads, understand his vision even more and watch his career soar to whichever plateau it takes him.

If you ever read this Dr Bennett, I’d like you to know you are one of my heroes and you have made a change in someone. You are so important not only to me, but to poetry.

josh bennett