Poet Joshua Bennett adjusted the mic stand at Kent State University. “I was raised Baptist,” he warned the audience in Oscar Ritchie Hall. “I need energy from you. I’m open to any and all forms of enthusiasm.”
Dressed in dark skinny jeans, a cranberry sweater vest and Oxford shirt, Bennett steadied himself and spoke of his recent discovery of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Using the last stanza of Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me,” he began his poem, “Say it, Sing it, as the Spirit Leads,” written in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”
A special guest of KSU’s Wick Poetry Center, the man from Yonkers, N.Y. has entered the national conversation during the past three years, driven in part by his viral poem, 2010’s “10 Things I Want To Say To A Black Woman.” A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Bennett has performed at the NAACP Image Awards, the Kennedy Center, and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Princeton University.
Bennett said he didn’t begin to explore poetry until he was 17, when a friend invited him to a spoken word event. “Afterward, I bought a CD and a T-shirt, took a couple workshops, and my life changed,” he said. “I was a hip-hop kid before I started with poetry.”
Now in his early 20s, that hip-hop influence still saturates both his content and his delivery. Through his 45-minute set, he veered from racial politics, to love discoveries, to questions of identity, sometimes within the same piece. He wants his poetry, he said, to help eradicate shame.
Bennett has three siblings, each with a disability: his older sister is deaf, his older brother is schizophrenic and his younger brother is autistic. “For Levi,” his tribute to his younger brother with autism, ends with:
Tell them Levi is just shorthand for levitate.
That your calling is to the clouds
and you would pay them a lot more attention
but you are simply too busy having a conversation with God right now.
Then smile for them. Smile big. Smile pretty.
A woman in the audience told Bennett that hearing him speak inspired her to take her poetry more seriously. Bennett looked humbled and then offered her a word of advice. “Poems should be archeology,” Bennett said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”
Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Plankton,” a love poem