Getting Inside the Story

College senior Joshua Bennett mines the richness of spoken word poetry.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

By Priya Ratneshwar

For as long as he can remember, Joshua Bennett, C’10, has been drawn to the art of the spoken word. As a child Bennett, who is from a Baptist family, used to improvise sermons and practice the rhetorical styles of the preachers at his church. At the age of 17, he had an experience that inspired him to turn his hobby into a calling. A friend of Bennett’s had invited him to attend a Hurricane Katrina benefit at Sarah Lawrence College. There he saw performers from Urban Word NYC, a non-profit organization that promotes literary arts education and youth development through spoken word, poetry and hip-hop.

“Until then, I didn’t know there was a space where the writing of poetry and performance collided in such a powerful way,” Bennett says. “These beautiful writers were getting up and telling their stories, and the entire auditorium was hanging on to every word. I wanted that.”

In the four years since, the Africana Studies and English double major has become an established voice on the slam poetry circuit. Bennett performs multiple times a week, mainly in Philadelphia but, more and more frequently, around the country as well. Representing “Team Philadelphia,” he and two fellow poets from Penn—Alysia Harris and Aysha El Shamayleh (both C’10)—won the 2007 Brave New Voices Youth Poetry Slam and were finalists in last year’s competition. Bennett is also featured in HBO’s seven-part series, which aired this past spring, documenting the lives and work of some of the poets competing in Brave New Voices.

"Remember that your audience is composed of real people and that your story has something powerful in it to potentially change the way someone lives." - Joshua Bennett

In February, Bennett—along with Ben Alisuag, C’09, and Emerson College student George Watsky—performed a group poem to honor Russell Simmons at the NAACP Image Awards. And in May Bennett was one of a handful of performers invited to a celebration of poetry, music and the spoken word at the White House. The pressure was high—Bennett was performing for the First Family and about 200 guests, and he took the stage following legendary actor James Earl Jones. But he says, “It was a pleasure and honor to perform, particularly for an administration that appreciates art and poetry and music. I just prayed, went on stage, and it was one of my most passionate performances because I really connected with it.”

Although he has performed for exclusive audiences, Bennett most appreciates spoken word poetry’s accessibility. “You can perform it for a group of academics,” he says, “or for a group of kids that really only listen to hip-hop. It crosses genres and audiences, and everyone has something they can bring to it and take from it.”

To ensure that they exploit the full power of spoken word, Bennett and his poetry colleagues remind each other to “get inside the story” before each performance. “What that means,” he explains, “is to remember what drove you to the point of writing. Remember that your audience is composed of real people and that your story has something powerful in it to potentially change the way someone lives.”

Taking a cue from the organization that first motivated him to write poetry, Bennett has become involved in programs that try to change lives through the arts. He is a key member of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, a non-profit which provides mentoring, creative writing workshops, classes and performance opportunities to teens in the city.

Subjects of Bennett’s poetry include his family and issues of race and class that he has dealt with in his life. “I grew up in a black, working-class home in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and then I had access to an elite, mainly white private-school education from when I was 14 until now. Moving between these worlds has been really interesting and complicated.”

Bennett’s signature piece, “Tamara’s Opus,” is about his struggle to communicate with his deaf older sister. Its central image depicts her 20th birthday party, where Bennett, then 11, saw his sister’s deaf friends dancing to the vibrations of hip-hop blaring from speakers. “At that moment, I realized that deafness wasn’t an absence of hearing,” he says, “it was hearing in a completely different way. It was embracing hip-hop in a completely different way than I ever could.”

Bennett chose “Tamara’s Opus” for his White House performance because he feels that conversations about disability don’t take place often enough in such spaces. “I felt like if Barack ever got to hear me talk,” he says, “that’s what I wanted him to hear me saying.”

A scholar as well as a poet, Bennett finds that his art and research often feed each other. “Tamara’s Opus” inspired his honors thesis, which will explore the presence of characters with disabilities as metaphors in post-Emancipation era African-American literature, art and music. He is a University Scholar and an Undergraduate Humanities Forum Research Fellow, and he plans to continue on as an academic after graduating from Penn. “The people that have most changed my life have been teachers and the authors of books I’ve read,” Bennett says. “I think that as a performer, an arts educator and activist, I have some important contributions to make to the American academy and to scholarship at large.”