The talented Mr Bennett
I remember fondly a very interesting thing that was once said my Martin Scorsese. In his documentary A personal journey through American movies, he questions the creative space of the artist in relation to commercial imperatives. He keenly asks, do you make one for them and one for yourself? If there is one poet I have seen in recent history find the perfect balance between commercial recognition and still having a distinct voice, it is the young Joshua Bennett.
The young American wordsmith is a literary riddle; his poetry is littered with cultural poignancy that reaches further than the ears of just American audiences. So admittedly I was slightly nervous upon visiting the Royal Hotel to interview this young master mind. I had seen many of his videos via YouTube and could not help but feel certain kind of intensity, both in his words and in the way he delivers them.
When he finally did join me my reservations were quickly averted. With skinny jeans, a large yet well trimmed beard, wearing a T-shirt and armed with an ipod he joins me and greets me with a firm a handshake. Before I can even ask him a question he tells me what an experience it has been to visit South Africana and the African continent for the first time. He quickly points out that it is nothing like he has ever imagined which is not to say he has been disappointed. “It’s been a crazy few days just being here and being surrounded by these writers and poets and lovers of words. The energy of the people I have met is just amazing” he says.
And its only fitting that he speaks about the issue of energy because his performances always seem to have it. Whether in group poems or as a loner he seems to have a vibrancy that can best be described as binding, regardless of his subject matter. I asked him what had initially made him want to become a writer and a slam poet. He told me how some of his literally aptitude comes by virtue of sheer chance and very grounded roots. “I have been writing since I was five, “he says. “But I only wrote my first slam piece when I was 17 after I had visited a Katrina relief benefit. It was a really moving moment in my life” he fondly recalls.
From the way he speaks one cannot help but notice how mature the young Bennett is, and the body of work he has produced makes the success he garnered all that more sweet. It would almost be a cliché to say that he comes from humble beginnings, a cliché but only it is true. Born in 1988 to a postal worker and an accountant Bennett does not discount the importance of those early years, not only in his writing but also in the way he has shaped the ethos of his work.
Speaking about growing up in America he notes that one of the strangest experiences was growing up in New York and being offered a scholarship to a prestigious school. “It was just a culture shock” he notes. “It was only then that I really got a good look at what America was and what it stood for. For me being there just made me see the class divide in Americana. I was one of about 9 black students that graduated in my year, which was the most they had ever had and although I am very grateful or the education I got over those early years, that experience definitely politicized me in a lot of ways”
And those politics are not only visible in his work but also in his activism. He has been very outspoken about human rights issues as well as rights for people living with disabilities. The later was perhaps most keenly displayed when he performed a poem partly in sign language dedicated to his sister at the White House poetry evening. “It was definitely a very different experience for me growing up with my half sister Tamara. People in my family knew sign so they could talk to her and for me it was like, when she came around I just sat in my room or gave her a note. So for me to be able to do that for her was really vital. And I performed the piece for her and it was such a moving experience” he says. “I am also gonna be learning sign language as part of my masters” he adds.
It is this will to seek knowledge that has landed him in good favor with other poets and poetry lovers alike. As one YouTube user comments “His words are well thought through and you can’t help feel that he is a young man with knowledge waiting to burst out of him”.
His most popular poems such as 10 things I wanna say to a black woman have made his popular with many young colleges students in the US as well as many other parts of the world. Speaking on why his work has managed to resonate with such a wide spectrum of audiences he says. “I don’t know” he bursts out in laughter before continuing. “It’s really something that always confuses me too. How does my personal experience reach so many people? And why does anyone want to hear my poems? Through my work I have come to believe that the personal is political and that the political resonates with everyone. Maybe you might not have grown up with a deaf sister or you don’t have 10 things you wanna say to a black woman but you know what love is or you know what loss it, and I think people will always relate to that. And I hope through my work I can reach as many people as possible”
Although he is keen to spread his work he readily admits that there are some drawbacks that come with being a slam poet in general and being a slam poet in America. Not the least of which is the fact that many people in the mainstream still do not regard performance poetry as a genuine form of literature. “It really is hard sometimes because there is a lot of disorganisation in the scene and although I know a lot of people who live of their poetry there is still a lot f improvement that needs to be done” he says. “From the organization of venues and just the general respect for us because we are writers as well. Poetry is hard and I don’t think enough people get or appreciate that”
If nothing else Bennett is not just waiting for people to appreciate his work. He is getting out and making them take the spoken word seriously. Through his work with The Strivers Row and various collaborations with long time friend Alysia Harris he has produced a body of work that poets double his age would envy. Speaking on his relationship with Harris he notes how there is a synergy not only in their ideas about the work but about life. “Alysia and I get on very well, in fact I meet her at a conference in Texas years ago and we have stayed friends ever since” he says. “we just click and our voices match u so well and I always enjoy working with her and for me artistic collaboration in general is an important part of what I do cause I think the choreography sometimes makes a piece hit that much harder and hopefully resonates with the people watching or listening to it”
Joshua Bennett will be hitting Durban audiences hard on day five of the Poetry Africa festival
Friday 21 October , 2011 Elizabeth Sneddon theatre UKZN
Tickets cost R30
Images courtesy of Rog Wlaker and Peter Mckenzie