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Joshua Bennett: a force of poetic electricity! His rapidly developing resume is robust with experiences that are more than enough to make one tongue-tired at their mentioning. From being featured on the popular HBO series Russell Simmons presents Brave New Voices and Ralph Lauren’s Rugby campaign to performing his poetry at The Kennedy Centre and The Sundance Film Festival, amongst several others. At 24 he is studying his PhD in English at the prestigious Princeton University, having graduated from the University of Warwick (United Kingdom) with a Masters of Arts degree in Theatre and Performance Studies.
He has performed for President Barack Obama and First-lady Michelle Obama at an Evening of Poetry and Music held at the White House and over the two out of three days spent on his first trip to South Africa (performing at the 2012 Word N Sound festival), Joshua and I would converse candidly about everything from what Toni Morrison and Stevie Wonder mean to him, the family members and upbringing that inform his poetic and prison work, the writers that he admires to what his faith means to him, his dreams said out loud for the first time and a whole lot more! I am honored to share with you a conversation that has altered me, passionately hoping it will do the same for you. By: Kabelo Khanye.
Kabelo: How are you enjoying South Africa so far?
Joshua: It’s amazing [laughs] it’s so beautiful. It is architecturally beautiful … the green space integrated with urban space, it’s futuristic but its signals of the past in all these ways. I really love being here and I tweeted earlier that it really felt like coming home and I think some people misunderstood me and thought that I’m literally from South Africa, which I may be, who knows right?
J: [Laughs] But at the same time I really meant that there’s something that feels like home about being in this place and being around so many people of colour that are vibrant and excited and beautiful.
K: That’s fantastic. You’re my champion right now-
J: Oh my gosh, thank you! I have never been called that in my entire life. I am someone’s champion!
K: [Laughs] you’re studying your PhD in English at Princeton University? How is this going?
J: It’s wild man [laughs]. I can’t lie, this year is so much more fun than last year, it’s absurd. It’s almost like last year was real life and now I’m in a video game or like a magical realist novel because I finally realized what I’m writing about, I have advisors that are excited about my work. So right now I’m writing about how 19th century black writers conceive of animals and plants and that sounds really obscure
J: But it’s really not. We have all these strange narratives in the US about how ‘black people don’t care about animals’, ‘they don’t care about nature’, ‘they don’t write about nature the way that Thoreau or Emerson does’, when in actuality what you have is the very robust understanding of how nature can be both beautiful and violent. When you have a group of people who have been stolen from the African continent and made to work the land and are made the legal equivalent of animals, to work beside animals, when what you get is this beautiful body of literature and performance that understands that tension. Princeton is great in that regard, I don’t live there anymore, I moved to New York City but I commute which is so much better for me. I get to be around my family and help raise my nephew; I get to fly out from New York to South Africa-
K: And I understand that the whole long distance thing was a problem for you.
J: Yeah man. Long distance, anything is not fun, let’s just put that out there, right now [laughs]. It sucks.
K: Why was it important for you to not end at your Honors or your Masters but to take it all the way to PhD?
J: That’s a good question, thank you. I have wanted to be a professor since I was 17 years old. I read a Cornel West book ‘Race Matters’ when I was in an all white school [laughs]. I read this book and I didn’t realize I could write and think about people who look like me and that that could be a job. Since I was a little boy it was ‘you’re going to be a preacher or a lawyer’, for the eloquent black man those are the key options [laughs]. The idea that I could be a teacher and not just a teacher but an author and a poet and a scholar and create new knowledge, you know? For me, the idea that I could create new knowledge blew me away, for a kid that had been taught, not directly, that my history didn’t matter. I was in a History class in 9th grade where we spent three or four weeks on Greece and maybe one week on the entire continent of Africa, this blew me away! I was like, how many cultures are in this place, this wondrous, gorgeous continent and so little attention given. Getting the PhD is a way for me to become a professor and it’s also one way for me to go to places where people are oppressed and have people know that I know what I’m talking about. To go into prisons and say I want to do this programme and in actuality what I want to do is unmake the psychological and emotional prisons that these institutions try to create.
K: Do you believe it is important for artists to be academically educated?
J: Yes, absolutely. For me, that doesn’t always have to be with the University. We need to state an important difference between just reading and being part of the University. For me, the University has been helpful because of the community, I have been around other people who are my age and who share similar interests and at the same time some of my favorite thinkers, someone like Malcolm X, no College degree. I go to the library and I read every day, when I am in prison, I read every day. I have a commitment to knowledge that is rooted in a commitment to people that drives me to be a student. Academic education can take many different forms and sometimes I don’t even think it has to be a book. That’s really radical too right?
J: But there’s something about building, about what it would mean to be a carpenter that may not have anything to do parse with knowing about nature but that I can build this table from scratch, that I could see this table in my head and go to a hunk of wood and build this thing, to me that is the kind of education that is lost and that can also not only be its own kind of poetry but lead into written poetry from a different direction. For any profession it is important to be educated but particularly for poets, we have to read. How else do you know the horizon of what language can do? Until I read Toni Morrison, I had no idea that sentences could do that. James Baldwin, the same way, the way he tells the story of his brother and father, that showed me new ways to tell stories about my father. I think it’s critically important to be engaged. We are part of a tradition, whether we know it or not, there are people who came before us that had the same feelings but in different bodies and in different moments.
K: And I just finished The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison a few weeks ago-
J: Oh my gosh! That book is so good, it’s such a great book.
K: And the fact that she wrote it when she was a single parent, raising two boys in New York City, still working during the day and that’s what she came up with! What does Toni Morrison mean to you?
J: Oh my gosh! First, good questions. This is one of the best interviews ever, by the way, I want to say that. I saw Toni Morrison give a reading of her new book ‘Home’ at Princeton. That’s another thing I like about Princeton, they just have so much money that-
K: They could just get anybody they like.
J: And it’s absurd, right? Toni Morrison’s work has meant so much for me and I’m just going to keep it really funky here. As a black artist, it is hard just being black. I feel like there are so many times where I have ideas, where I’m thinking about concepts and then something really racist just happens and I get distracted. Where did my novel go? How many novels have I lost just off of racist people doing distracting things? What Toni Morrison constantly reminds me of is that black people can be imaginative. We have been taught that so often that black people don’t have imaginations when in actuality our imaginations are incredible. How else do you philosophize and just think and dance and sing through the horror? Toni has this commitment to wonder which is incredible; she has like animals doing cool stuff and people flying, what?
K: [Laughs] Exactly.
J: She’s like a sentence does not have to be that, in can be this.
K: Have you met Toni Morrison?
J: No, if I met Toni Morrison, I would collapse. I would need a year to think about questions I would ask her, you can’t just ask Toni Morrison any question [laughs]
K: [Laughs] Yeah.
J: This woman has transformed the word as a unit. I cannot think of words the same way because of Toni. I owe her a lot.
K: May you please share with our Inspired4Writers readers what the purpose of art is?
J: To create objects that don’t exist in the material world, that sounds very strange but when you write a new story, you need something. The way people who have written poetry before me, they’ve written love poems and maybe even wrote love poems about whales but nobody did it the way I did it. When I wrote Balaenoptera, which was a completely new object I put into the world. This interview, the questions you put together, that is a new thing and that is what art opens up. It is incredible, for people who were told that they are nothing, that they are less than human, that they lack imagination and that they will never be anything. But to say no, I am a creative force, I am a cosmic thing, I am grand and amazing and I can make stuff. Art bodies forth freedom in a real way, even in the midst of the most prevailing abjection: people who were slaves, people that are prisoners, people that are beaten and abused every day, when you can create art, that gives you the ability to create a new world. Especially for someone who has been committed to working in prisons, how can you help people make a new world out of that? I think art can do that.
K: What exactly are you doing in prisons?
J: When I was in undergrad, in my senior year at Penn, I started this programme called B.A.R.S, an acronym for Beautiful Art Ruptured Silence and every other weekend we would go in and do creative writing workshops in two prisons in Philadelphia, one for women and one for young men. My older brother was incarcerated when he was a teenager and two of my cousins are in jail now, one is in solitary confinement. I have a family history that forces me to think really personally about what it means for a person to live inside a box. As of late, the image of my cousin being in solitary confinement has been very jarring for me and before, it was sort of abstract. You put someone in a box that doesn’t really have light in it and they can’t talk to people, that sounds horrifying but it also sounds like science fiction. Someone that is flesh and blood, someone who is your uncle’s son in that thing.
K: That much more personal.
J: Yeah! It makes it real bro. I feel like I can see the thing now in a different way and it’s also sad that it requires that, that it has to be your cousin or your brother. My commitment to prisons emerges from my family but also have a hunch that it’s really unethical to put people in cages. Philosophically, that’s messed up. The way we think about justice is just off and I think we just need a new way to articulate justice, to articulate something like freedom that doesn’t require people to be locked up to understand what freedom is.
K: This aligns with your essential purpose?
J: Yes, in the world. When I think about what my purpose is, a lot of them have to do with a firm commitment to abundant life. To opposing systems of death, of which I think prison is one. The unmaking of the prison industrial complex, rights for people with disabilities and I have a new commitment to the natural world. The more I read about plants and animals, the more I feel we are just destroying things. Without trees, we are actually going to die. Without water, without animals, we won’t survive. These are beings that have their own lives, their own communities and that communicate. Why would you assume that that is only in humans? What right do you have to engage in this large-scale violence, so when I talk about purpose, I just have a commitment to life.
K: A lot of your poetry, if not all of it, is very personal. For example, you write “I have been a prisoner of your love, since before time began. Your electrons are synonymous to my electrons, you are the Garden of Eden my Adams were made for” [Transatlantic Love Manifesto: A Blues for Sarah]. Why is it so important for you to ‘fish from your gut’ like you once said?
J: This is really a good interview! [Laughs].
J: I don’t know how else to do anything anymore. In my house it was cool to cry and I am so thankful to my parents in that regards. My father was a Marine, he was trained by the government to be tough in certain ways but I think a lot of young men, in particular, are trained to think that feelings are these bad things to be avoided. That love is a bad word. I have to fish from my gut because that’s the example I want to leave, that’s the legacy I want to leave. When you fish from the gut you get more and you give people more. Honesty has always resonated with me more than a flawless performance-
K: That rawness.
J: Yeah and I’m not saying precision is bad. I think it’s important to have a commitment to craft, where you practice, sometimes we just forget to practice and I’m including myself. I forget that I need to be practicing every day because I’m a professional, people fly me to places to do stuff and people are paying to see me, I want you to get a great show. I want everything to sound crisp and awesome and musical. At the same time, if you don’t believe me, I should never have gotten on that stage, if there isn’t something fundamentally human about the connection that we have.
K: Yeah, do you have any fears about fishing from your gut? Expressing that to the public?
J: Yes, definitely. We’re in the age of the internet; I was thinking about this two days ago, I feel like you’re in my head [laughs]. I was having this thought that when I’m an old man, or even when I’m thirty and I’m hopefully a professor somewhere, will I want these videos on the internet of me talking about the girlfriends I had when I was twenty?
K: [Laughs] It’s cool now but-
J: [Laughs] Yeah it’s awesome now! I’m in South Africa for free, I got class on Monday [laughs] but it also makes you think about growing up and there is a generation of people who are growing up and everything you do is archived. You’re going to go through your adolescent years on Facebook? I was not cute; I couldn’t dress [laughs]. It’s hard because it can be embarrassing for who knows what I’ll think when I change politically, theologically and even from relationships that I was in but I’m not in anymore, those moments are held in time. I think embarrassment and shame are bad things, and this is hard to say, but as I get older, I’m trying to work my way out of shame. And then I think, ‘what are you ashamed of? You loved somebody really hard when you were 22 or 23 and you wrote about it and you put it out there for people and it connected with them. It helped people so you can never be ashamed, or embarrassed.’
K: You also wrote and performed a poem for your brother Levi, in which you say ‘Levi is shorthand for levitate. Your calling is in the clouds. You would pay them a lot more attention but you’re too busy having a conversation with God right now.” What is your perception of autism?
J: It’s a spectrum, which I think people forget. They think of autism and their mind jumps to movies … there is so much we don’t know about the human brain. My little brother is a reminder of the limits of my own imagination and the limited understanding of the human body and mind. Levi can do stuff with his brain that I can’t. This idea of neurotypicality, not as normality or my brain is good and your brain is different or it’s ‘cool’. People with autism are people moving through the world with an amazing brain, the same way we are all moving through the world with our brains that are amazing. My perception is that my little brother is a person, he is 14, he likes Anime, he likes chicken fingers … he likes stuff that 14-year-old boys like and he’s really strong, he’s my height now and he’s getting to the point where he can beat me in wrestling. A lot of that poem is about my brother but also using my relationship with him to think more broadly about this problem of normalcy that we impose onto children. This past year has taught me that I don’t know some stuff and we need to be comfortable with not only not knowing but acting like we know. When people act like they know, people do dangerous things, they hurt people.
K: It’s pride …
J: Yes! Exactly and pride is a killer. [Laughs] I have so many close friends who are successful in different ways that I want to be and pride will just get me and I’m like to myself ‘why can’t you be happy for that person the way that they are happy for you?’
K: Yeah, to be truly happy for that person.
J: Right! My friends are so supportive in honest ways and some may not have the chance to fly to South Africa but they are the best writer and I know and I think they know it [laughs], they know they are better writers than me. My ultimate dream, and not many people know this but it’s to build a school-
J: To have an all-inclusive school. Last January, somebody asked me ‘Josh, what is all this for?’, the You Tube views, at this point I have met two former Presidents, I got to introduce [Former President] Bill Clinton last week at an event, and what is that all for? That’s not for people to say ‘you’re poetry is good’. My hope and my goal is that I will have a bunch of people, and this is real, I have never said this on record so get this, I will have a bunch of people to call and say ‘I am building a school. I need money and I need you to call these people and I need this many professors and I need this many people with good education and I need some really good athletes. I need all this and let’s build an awesome school where kids who are deaf, kids with autism, kids who neurotypical, kids who don’t like books all that much but can build a table. Let’s have a school where all these kids are not only highlighted but fully lived into.’ Some people may think that’s a bit naïve but I kid you not I have seen much wilder things than a dude that writes poetry growing into being a dude that builds a school. Hopefully before I die, that school will be a real thing. I think it’s possible. My grandmother was a sharecropper, after slavery there were people living on that same land doing that same work for next to no money. My grandmother picked cotton and one generation moved, her grandson met two Presidents. What is impossible? Slavery was not a long time ago and the life I am living into was fundamentally inconceivable for people who did not believe that impossible was not a thing and I’m really hyped right now [laughs]-
J: But it’s true. We need younger people, especially younger people of colour with a history of colonization, with a history of slavery to realize that. Don’t let people tell you that there’s a ceiling. When I was 5, they said I would never function in a classroom. [Today] I’m doing my PhD. Do it for other people … when I was younger, I was a selfish artist. I wrote poetry and thought I was nice and I could get money and dates but when I was 18, I had a man named Gregory Corbin take me aside, in Philadelphia which is one of the most violent cities in the US where people are living in shacks, with no electricity. He took me aside and he said ‘Josh, this isn’t about you … that man took out all the money in his bank account to fly us to this international poetry festival that we won. That was a dream for him. We almost gave up on Greg; we almost gave up on ourselves. It was not about a slam, it was about kids who were moved by those poems years later.
K: And that’s what you’d advice artists to understand, that it’s not about them?
J: I had a woman in Kenya send me a Facebook message asking for the lyrics to one of my poems. She said her and her boyfriend were in a long distance relationship and that that poem meant a lot for them. When Toni Morrison wrote her novels, it was for you, it was for me. It’s bigger than us.
K: You also have a sister and she is deaf. How have your siblings challenges challenged and altered you?
J: Part of it was growing up in a household where our different identities were celebrated. I don’t give my parents enough credit both publicly and privately. They had this idea that there’s this divine creator that made all you guys and further, ‘you are our kids and we love you.’ I also grew up thinking that there’s something really wrong with society if society can just take your older brother away and put them in a cage. And it is a cage, I have a new language for things, that’s a cage. They didn’t put him in a cell, that sounds too good. A cell is a unit of life, don’t associate that with jail. It is confinement and it is death, it is a slow death. My older sister Latoya taught me how to talk, Tamara has taught me how to sign and so across the spectrum of bodily difference and neurology, they have just taught me different things about what it means to be in the world. My oldest brother, Terrell, taught me about push-ups. So what my sister taught me that deafness is a different culture, it’s not the absence of hearing but a different way of moving through the world. Understanding the body in a different way, understands the visual plane in a different way, the hands in a different way- my sister can just do things with her hands that I can’t do. It’s important for me to say on record and in public and in a way I haven’t really in the past that my siblings are all spectacular. All forms of life are spectacular, no matter what.
K: And this is why Stevie Wonder is so important to you?
J: Don’t talk to me about that man.
K: [Laughs] I went there.
J: Toni and Stevie! You know! Have you ever heard ‘Journeying through the Secret Life of Plants’?
K: No, I haven’t.
J: That’s my favorite album. This man is talking about plants for two discs [laughs] and his imagery is amazing. That’s why I love Frank Ocean so much. For me, Frank Ocean is the first singer I’ve heard that’s really picked up Stevie’s mantle for me in a way that’s compelling. I said it.
J: His commitment to imagery … “a typhoon flew around my room before you came, excuse the mess it made. It usually doesn’t rain in southern California, much like Arizona. My eyes don’t shed tears but boy do they ball when I’m thinking about you.’ What is he talking about? A tornado didn’t really fly around the room, you know [laughs], the same way Stevie can’t really build a castle of love just for two. These things blow my mind because these people make new worlds possible … When my father fought in the Vietnam war, he told me he used to listen to Stevie, in the bunker, when he sang “my commitment to life.” That’s a literal quote in my poem [Dear Stevie], he said that Stevie made him want to be alive. He used to pray and listen to Stevie and he said, ‘if this is what life is, I want it.’ Stevie would paint pictures that would remind him that the world was bigger than the world he was in. When he grew up in the Jim Crowe south and he wasn’t allowed to use certain bathrooms, you all know about this in South Africa right? Right? Stevie helps me conceive a freedom. He’s talking about a different kind of blackness, an imaginative blackness that is attentive to love and nature a vulnerable black masculinity. Love as an organizing principle.
K: One thing that I admire about you Joshua is that you are bold about your faith. You are not “too cool to talk about God.” What does your faith mean to you?
J: That’s such a pressing question, particularly now. I was raised in a Baptist household; I was raised by parents who had a serious commitment to the care of other people. My theological beliefs have changed a lot specifically in the past year. I can never let go of the Christian tradition that raised me, the fundamental care for the poor. My commitment to an abundant life is a concept rooted in a certain kind of Christian ethic that I was raised with but I was also raised by a father who grew up in the Jim Crowe south and a mother who was raised by a mother who was a sharecropper, so I also have an understanding of how various forms of religion have been used oppress and colonize people of colour. I need to have a further understanding of how we can have a counter discourse to that: how can we even begin to talk about God, the way God has been leveraged to promote colonization and slavery and patriarchy and racism. Can we find a new language to talk about religion from the position of the oppressed or the marginalized, in a way that is libratory and to be honest, once again something I haven’t said out loud, there have been times when I thought ‘I don’t know if I can be a Christian anymore, with this history that’s behind it.’ But then I got thinking about my grandma, I got thinking about what she means when she talks about God? Is she taking about a white man in the sky that wants her to be oppressed and doesn’t want her to make money for the cotton that she’s picking? What does Frederick Douglas mean? What does Harriet Tubman mean? Even a person like Saint Francis who was preaching to birds and talking to wolves so for me, my faith always needs to be counter hegemonic, always needs to be fighting systems of racism and patriarchy and homophobia that are in the world and are leveraging real violence. I am always against forms of religion that do violence to people and so for me, everything that has to do with me being a man of faith has to do with a commitment to life. If I want to imagine a heaven, I want that heaven to outbreak on earth. I want there to be freedom and peace on earth. That’s where my heart is every day when I wake up, pray, when I go to church, that’s where my heart is. There are people living in hell right now, use what you have to get them out of that … Faith asserts life over the death that people try to deal us.
K: Your work is influenced by writers such as Fred Moten, Akira Mizuta Lippit and Henry David Thoreau-
J: This is the best interview I have ever had [laughs] how you know all of that is absurd.
K: [Laughs] At what point should an artist stop learning and begin creating their own work?
J: We never stop learning and I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher. I wouldn’t be able to create the work that I do without Thoreau’s or Fred’s voice in my head. I got a book by Emerson in my backpack and for me, those writers push me forward to creating new works of art. The artist should never feel chained by the influences but we should always go above and beyond and at the same time you should always realize that you’re part of the conversation.
K: You got the opportunity to perform for President Barack Obama and First-lady Michelle Obama. How was that experience?
J: Incredible. One of the most transformative experiences of my life. After that, as an artist, my professional life changed. How nice Michelle Obama was to my mom … Michelle engaged me in conversation, Barack was much more brief [laughs] which I get. Michelle said ‘I’m so excited to see you guys’ and I felt that she was so sincere. My mom actually tapped her and asked ‘what did you think of my son?’ and I was like ‘mom, what are you doing? This is the First-lady, you can’t just tap people’ [laughs] but it was great. Spike Lee was there, Saul Williams was there wearing a green suede jacket … who else can do that but Saul? Another reason I love him. It was really amazing, one of the best nights of my life. There was a group of deaf students there from a local University so that was quite amazing.
K: Last night, my friend Viwe and I were discussing whether you are aware of your light? You meet the President of the United States and you travel around the world, touching so many people with your work and having an impact on us. Are you aware of your light?
J: Oh wow. On a fundamental level an artist needs to understand that ‘I would not have a career if it wasn’t for you guys.’ My partner now has helped me think of this quite a lot, that there are amazing poets who went their whole lives without anybody reading a page of what they wrote. I could argue that they were way better than me and I had to realize very early that me meeting the President had nothing with me being amazing. Part of that was growing up in a household where everything was a gift: breath was a gift, the ability to speak was a gift and certainly platform was a gift and it really has nothing to do with you. Anybody could have been in that space.
K: On that note, what’s next for Joshua Bennett?
J: [Laughs] I really want to get this PhD, I want to finish that. I want to be a professor, I want to get more into recording music … I want to be a dad, I don’t know how soon that will be happening. I have always wanted to be a father for as long as I can remember. I want to be a poet in residence somewhere and I just had my first poem published a couple of weeks ago and so from here on I will try to do really good page work.
K: Would you consider writing a novel or another kind of book?
J: Yeah, that would be awesome. The first two book projects I had were rather small so maybe next time a manuscript project … EBook for printed poems and short stories and even videos of this, conversations.
K: What is the one Truth that you hold onto?
J: The truth that God is love and there is love flowing through people. The love of people is something that has really dawned on me in this past year in particular, how much of my life has depended on the kindness of strangers … like coming to South Africa, what happened? People weren’t mean to me, people didn’t try and use me but what happened was people put me in a really nice hotel, people were really flexible, they had great energy and questions for me that were well researched … it is incumbent on me to do that for other people, for other artists.