Joshua Bennett
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Joshua Bennett

Yonkers, New York, United States

Yonkers, New York, United States
Band Spoken Word Comedy

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Poet and author Susan Somers-Willett talks about the branding of poetry slams, details why slam poetry is moving mainstream, and outlines the problems that commercialism poses to politically-minded poets.

BOOK: The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett (University of Michigan Press, May 2009).

Interview By RONAMBER DELONEY & JASMINE MAHMOUD
Published: Issue 1, Summer 2009

JASMINE: Did you catch the White House Poetry Jam featuring, among others, spoken word by Mayda del Valle, Jamaica Osorio and Joshua Bennett? The mass reception has been mixed. Some applaud the White House for featuring “cutting-edge” artists; others are blasting this event because of its difference from what the mainstream associates with art. What are your thoughts?

I think this event underscores what many critics forget to mention about slam and spoken word poetry: that its audience is there not only to hear poetry but to engage in political exchange. One of the main appeals of a poetry slam, or poetry “jam” in this case, is that the engagement is both literary and extra-literary. These events celebrate the performance of poetry but they also celebrate the performance of marginalized identities and calls for social change.

The opening remarks of President and Mrs. Obama make this political imperative of slam and spoken word poetry clear. Michelle Obama introduced the event as “another way for us to open up the White House and once again make it the People’s House—to invite people from all different backgrounds to come and share their stories and speak their minds” and to “be open to hearing other people’s voices.” By other people’s voices, she means the voices of the disenfranchised: people of color, the urban poor, women, and youth. Her continual reference to the White House’s new “openness” indicates that they are interested in poetry and authors that challenge the social and aesthetic boundaries of high art. This is not Laura Bush’s idea of an evening of poetry, in other words.

As for this work being “cutting edge”—I’m not so sure about that. Although del Valle, Osorio, and Bennett are fine artists in their own rights, they perform work that is pretty expected from an audience familiar with spoken word poetry: personal narratives from people of color that proclaim the validity of their social positions. The real challenge for a spoken word poet is how to make that proclamation new, to perform it in a fresh way. When one succeeds, or when one has a brand new audience that hasn’t heard much of that before, the poetry can be read as cutting edge. But for a slam veteran like me, performance poems about marginalized identity need to do more than just be proclamations. They need to also be formally innovative and provoke deeper questions about how identity operates to garner the “cutting edge” title.

I also worry about the branding of this event as a “poetry jam”—I realize there was some confusion in the press about whether or not this was going to be a “slam” (a formal competition with a strict set of rules) or something else. I get what the Obamas were going for with this term—they wanted to convey that the work being performed was non-competitive spoken word poetry and which for the most part wasn’t academic—but the term “poetry jam” puts Russell Simmons’ fingerprints all over this evening and represents his branding of spoken word poetry for his own commercial purposes (further represented by his Def Jam record label and franchises like Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam). The fact that del Valle, Osorio, and Bennett have all appeared on Russell Simmons-branded HBO programs—del Valle on Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry and Osorio and Bennett on Russell Simmons Presents Brave New Voices—should not be lost on us. For me, the term “jam” signals that this new literary “openness” is also what is commercially viable, perhaps even sanctioned. That’s highly ironic for poetry that we expect to be grassroots, politically subversive, and largely non-commercial.

RONAMBER: I think slam rules limit the experience that the artist and audience could have, were props and time limits non-existent. However, without these rules, I know contemporary slam poetry as a genre wouldn’t exist because how could it then be distinguished from theatre?Do you think the marginality of slam poetry as a non-lucrative career path is because of its own politics of performance, or do you think the social interest in slam poetry is being hindered by the dominance of other normative, pop entertainment?

That’s a pretty complicated question that requires taking in a lot of “what if?” scenarios. Let me define the terms first. I think of slam poetry as what is being performed competitively in local and national competitions. Spoken word poetry is a much broader category, but it doesn’t entail poets competing against each other for scores. Instead, in popular Am - THE ARTS POLITIC


It is a jam, not a slam. President Barack Obama and his cabinet colleagues were today preparing for the first White House poetry party.

Consolidating his reputation for cool after his performance as a stand-up comic on Saturday night, Obama has invited poets and writers, backed by jazz musicians, to perform in the east room tonight.

It was originally billed as a poetry slam but the White House later corrected this, saying that a slam is a competition, which the president's party was not. It was a jam.

Obama promised on the campaign trail that if he was elected, he would throw the White House open to as wide a range of people as possible. Tonight is intended as part of that.

But it is also because Obama is fond of poetry. He said on the campaign trail no one should graduate from university without having read poetry and has been spotted with a copy works from the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott in his back pocket.

Two poems, Pop and Underground, by the president published in the literary magazine Feast in 1981 surfaced last year.

The likeliest to attempt the question 'What rhymes with Obama?' is slam poet Mayda Del Valle, from his hometown Chicago, though she may have too much taste even to try. Also on the bill are hip-hop artist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and the finalists from a youth poetry competition, Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio and Joshua Brandon Bennett.

Other performers include: actor James Earl Jones, who provided the voice for Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy; jazz musician ELEW and Esperanza Spalding; novelist Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policemen's Union; and Ayelet Waldeman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.

Since becoming president, the Obamas, who are often seen at theatre and concert halls round Washington much more than the Bushes, have hosted a series of cultural events at the White House.

The poetry/jazz event is to be streamed live on the White House website where it could also be viewed later. - http://www.guardian.co.uk/


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Joshua Bennett is a performance poet from Yonkers, NY. He has recited his original work at events such as The Sundance Film Festival, The NAACP Image Awards and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. In addition, he was a featured poet on the HBO series Brave New Voices. He has also performed on BBC Radio Oxford, at the NAACP Image Awards and alongside former U.S. Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. An alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, Joshua graduated with the distinctions of Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude, after double majoring in English and Africana Studies. In addition to receiving a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, Joshua was also awarded a Marshall Scholarship to earn a Masters of Arts in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick. He will pursue a PhD in English from Princeton University after his time abroad. Joshua thanks God for his gift, and is grateful for, and humbled by, the opportunity to inspire others.