When we interact with poetry, in a classroom, in a book or even scribbled on the bathroom stall door, we often only read the words. Too often we forget to speak the poem and to hear the stresses, the breaths and the rhythm. For spoken word artists, like Joshua Bennett, reading their poetry aloud injects a new life into the words that one might never have seen from simply looking at them. The words jump off the page when they merge with the speaker’s voice, his physical movements and the rhythm, speed and tone to create spoken word.
When listening to spoken word artists like Joshua Bennett or Swarthmore’s own Our Art Spoken In Soul (O.A.S.I.S.) read poetry, you’ll recognize how powerful the performance is to their poetry. Both Bennett and O.A.S.I.S. will be performing today in honor of Black History Month in LPAC’s Pearson-Hall theatre at 8 p.m.
If you’ve never heard of Joshua Bennett, search for a video of his performances on YouTube and you’ll discover what it is about Bennett’s voice and his physicality that have generated such acclaim and buzz. Bennett graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Not only did he graduate with Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, Bennett has performed his poetry at the White House in 2009 and at the NAACP Image Awards, was featured on HBO’s “Brave New Voices,” was the first African-American to receive the United Kingdom’s Marshall Scholarship, and he recently published his first book of poetry titled “Jesus Riding Shotgun.” Not bad for a 23 year old guy from Yonkers, NY.
Bennett has been writing stories and poetry from a very young age. “I just used to write stories, just really elaborate plagiarizations of Power Rangers,” he joked. In his sixth grade English class, though, they were required to write a poetic response to “Aida.” “That’s the first time I remember people saying my poetry was good … and then when I was 17 [that] was the first time I wrote a spoken word poem … after a Hurricane Katrina relief benefit,” Bennett said.
For Bennett, he feels there is a definite difference between spoken word and poetry read on a page because of the performer themselves. “My favorite spoken word poems are always narrative in nature, not necessarily linear narrative, [but] there’s always a sort of overarching crux of the piece that’s deeply personal that I appreciate,” he said. He also finds that spoken word has a different editing process, even how line breaks work are different.
His poetry encompasses many different themes. “I write a lot about my family, my environment and faith,” Bennett said. In many of his pieces, Bennett explores his “relationship with God and [his] understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.” He also considers himself to be a philosophical and theological writer. “I try to think deeply about what our everyday human interactions mean for the way we live, the way the world works and how I understand myself in relation to the supernatural. I guess I’ve always tried to write in a way that … operates on a bunch of different levels.
This universality of Bennett’s poetry has inspired many other poets, spoken word artists or anyone who has listened to him speak. Sean Bryant ’13, a member of O.A.S.I.S., attended high school in New York with Bennett. Bennett was Bryant’s mentor in the school’s Life Skills program, where seniors were matched with freshman. “Josh is the one who got me into spoken word,” Bryant said. “I always wrote poetry — it’s always been something that I’ve always done — but I never really started performing and doing spoken word until my freshman year of high school and then from freshman year and on … I kept writing.”
Spoken word poetry, for Bryant, does something even more amazing than poetry does on a page. “It’s your voice, it’s how you say certain words, it’s the actions that go with them, it’s the emotion that’s behind them [and] it’s the story behind them,” Bryant said.
During his time at UPenn, Bennett was a student and intern of Swarthmore’s Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae’s, who had the opportunity to hear him “drop his lines on many occassions.” Burrell-McRae recalled how many times Bennett would stop by her office, sometimes when she was having a down day. “I’d just say ‘I just need you to perform, do something for me,’ and he would … he would do his thing and it would make my day and all would be well in the world. He has a real gift,” she said.
For Burrell-McRae, Bennett’s poetry did more than just make her day. “[His poetry] sort of made all my senses come alive. He allowed me to remember the humanity of others and the role that I can play in … making my own life better and the lives of other people better,” she said.
Bryant loved one of Bennett’s performances of “Tamara’s Opus,” a poem that addresses his deaf sister. “[‘Tamara’s Opus’] really just touched me,” Bryant said. “It’s one of those poems that not everything is just about the words all the time. Sometimes poetry can get lost in all the metaphors and similars and so many other things, but this one had [those aspects], but it had something so much more real and just raw emotion that I really, really loved.”
Not only is today’s performance a chance for many students to hear Bennett’s and O.A.S.I.S. members’ poetry, it’s also the kick-off event in celebration of Black History Month. “I’m a black youth,” he said. “I grew up in a Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban neighborhood and I grew up in a black church, but I always went to [predominantly] white schools.” Though he noted that there are aspects of the African-American literary tradition that have resonated with him, this large array of different cultures and how he fit into each was “something that I struggled with.” “Always being somebody that was black, but sounded ‘white;’ being black in a white environment; being black in a Latino environment … I think I always felt this sort of split,” he said.
Bennett believes that black culture is around all of us and it has become even more apparent in both American culture and abroad. “I think we’re all sort of participating in [black culture] and being affected by it.”
McRae finds that Bennett often speaks to her own life in his poems. “He often talked about my experience of self-identifying as someone who’s of African descent, someone who’s a black woman … some of the pieces he does [are] about celebrating who we are,” she said.
Bennett’s poetry speaks to black culture in a way that encourages everyone to participate with it, which is something McRae hoped that the entire campus could share in. “We want to be real inclusive of the entire Swarthmore community,” she said about today’s event and also for Black History Month as a whole. One of her goals for the month’s events were to “get the entire campus to recognize that this, too, is a part of the Swarthmore identity and anyone can participate or engage … [and recognize] that when one thinks about diversity it’s about how to be inclusive of anyone who wants to be included.”
Bennett hopes his poetry strikes a chord with those at the performance today. “I just hope that the story resonates with them. I hope that people walk away feeling like their story is important, like their individual story is worth telling,” he said. He also hopes that “people’s lives are not the same when they leave.” “I know that seems like a really heavy expectation [of] a performer, but I really do think the best performances I’ve ever seen, I didn’t think the same when I left the room.”
Today’s performance will feature O.A.S.I.S. artists before Bennett takes to the stage, such as Bryant, Alaina Brown ’13, Javier Perez ’13, Ana Rosado ’12, Noel Quiñones ’15 and many more. The event will begin at 8 p.m. and is in the Pearson-Hall Theatre in the Lang Performing Arts Center.
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