On October 12, 2016, poet and scholar Dr. Joshua Bennett, C’10 visited Penn for a poetry reading of his debut collection, “The Sobbing School.” The event was hosted by the Center for Africana Studies. The collection was selected by award-winning Filipino-born American poet Eugene Gloria in 2015 as a winner of the National Poetry Series. While an undergraduate in 2009, Bennett was invited to perform for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Poetry Jam. As a graduating senior, he delivered the student graduation address for the College.
Bennett received his Ph.D. in English from Princeton University in 2015 and is currently a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.
Extended Q&A with Joshua Bennett:
After graduating from Penn, you went on to receive your Ph.D. in English. As a writer, why were you interested in going further into academia?
I wanted to go into an English program to study African-American literature in part because I found a world there. I found the tools and the critical vocabulary with which I could imagine a radically different world. Before I got to Penn, I went to a predominantly White elite private school in New York called Rye Country Day School. It took me two hours to get to school every day. I would wake up at 5:00 a.m., take two buses—the 1 bus to the 7 bus to the Metro-North. My whole senior year, every day, I would read Cornel West's Race Matters. That was the first time I had ever even heard the term African-American studies, that I heard Black studies, and it made me want to become a professor when I was 17 years old.
I knew that Black culture was valuable, beautiful, robust, but I didn't know that there was actually a meta-discipline out there in which I could study this. That I could not just get a degree in it, but could spend years in the archive of people that look like me and people that were trying to build a freer world for me—my folks.
Much of this first collection I wrote while I was a grad student. I'm really thankful for Black feminist mentors like Dr. Imani Perry (Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University) who helped make space for me to do whatever made me feel electrified and alive. Being a poet and a scholar were not presented to me as warring ideas. It was important to attend to the sentences in the dissertation in the same way I was attending the lines of poetry, and that beauty in a certain kind of aesthetic was actually part of the tradition.
What experiences at Penn inspired your trajectory as both an artist and academic?
The Spike Lee class my junior year with John Jackson [Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology and Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice] and Salamishah Tillet [Associate Professor of English]. Seeing their lively collaboration taught me a lot about collegiality, generosity, and Black sociality in the Academy. Seeing that kind of practice was a way for me to think about collaboration and performance, which I was already very used to from being in a spoken word collective. I was like, ‘Okay, so there's a way you can bring this into academia as well.’ Also, both Professor Tillet and Professor Jackson are artists. Dr. Jackson's a filmmaker and Dr. Tillet's an organizer and also writes quite beautifully in terms of her non-fiction prose. For me, I realized in my training at Penn that I didn't have to separate the two. That the Africana studies archive I was being exposed to in my classes really fed the poetry.
Many people in the Penn community know you as an accomplished spoken word poet. What is the difference between spoken versus written poetry in terms of the way you approach your writing?
Having stakes, whenever I approach the page—that comes from spoken word. In a poetry slam you have three minutes. Why would you get up and say something nobody cares about? I think I really tried to carry that sensibility to the book and to everything I write. I'm using people's time. I know folks have things to do. They have kids to take care of, jobs, or even just have something else they could be giving their mental energies to. So I think the stakes always have to be there for me when I approach the page. Even if it is meant to be read in silence in some ways I want it to sound beautiful when it's given to the air, when it's read aloud. There are poems in the book in particular that are more experimental and sort live primarily on the page. But I think I could read them and, hopefully, everyone wouldn't fall asleep. That's a spoken word sensibility through and through.
"The Sobbing School" by Joshua Bennett is published by Penguin Books.