Dr. Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), a National Poetry Series selection. He holds a PhD in English from Princeton University, and an MA in theatre and performance studies from the University of Warwick, where he was a Marshall Scholar. Dr. Bennett has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Cave Canem, and the Ford Foundation. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New York Times, Poetry and elsewhere. He is currently a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. His poem “Praise Song for the Table in the Cafeteria Where All the Black Boys Sat Together during A Block, Laughing Too Loudly” can be found here. It appears with another poem in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Praise Song for the Table in the Cafeteria Where All the Black Boys Sat Together during A Block, Laughing Too Loudly”?
School and schooling—as well as the myriad forms of unscripted social life that make schooling into something that can be survived—are among my guiding interests as a poet. Most of my life as both a student and educator has taken place in elite, predominantly white institutions, and part of what I wanted to explore in “Praise Song” was how black students, and black boys in particular, navigate the anxiety that comes along with spending your formative years as a kind of racial representative, as the only brown face in the brochure. I think often about what it means that my high school friends and I were first brought together, in a sense, not by shared interest in a given sport or some other extracurricular activity, but by fact of the blackness we held in common, this blackness that marked us individually and collectively in ways we could not predict, and did not yet have the language to describe. We were young, and far from home, and inordinately cruel to one another sometimes. But there were also all these moments of deep care, and singular recognition, that we shared over the span of those first four years together. These were the people that knew me best, and made me feel seen. I always had someone to look after me, is what I’m trying to say. I struggled, but never alone.
Why did you choose this epigraph from Jacques Derrida, “What is this nonpower at the heart of power?”
The phrase comes from Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, which is a text that I’ve been thinking through since my first year of graduate school. In the context of the poem, I am deploying the quotation in order to get at two central concerns. The first is the necessarily delicate core of any normative masculinity. The poem charts an elaborate set of social rituals that the boys undertake in order to shield themselves, and ultimately maintain their position in the crew’s largely unspoken, though universally recognized, hierarchy. I was interested in exploring the vulnerability that these boys keep at bay by necessity, what they suppress in order to keep one another close, all while audibly disavowing the need for that proximity. My second aim was to think about the symbolic role of these black students as it pertains to their school’s institutional self-identity. What does their presence mean for how the school imagines its growth, its commitment to social progress? More importantly, how does it feel to be a young person, a child, and know that your very life is functioning as this kind of metaphor or metric?
Can you tell us a bit more about this line: “I mean, really, / what’s a biography worth / if your boys won’t let it stretch?” How do the boys expand their worlds in the retelling?
Mythmaking was a core component of the social spaces I grew up in and around. The back of a school bus, the bodega, the choir loft: all sites at which I witnessed boys and men alike try to beautify themselves through narrative. The characters in “Praise Song” pick up this tradition and bring it into their private school as a means of self-care. In essence, they are trying to make what Clifton might call a kind of life in any way they can. This might involve stretching the truth, or else forgetting the truth altogether and making up some new person, some other, smoother boy they like a lot better than the one everybody on their block knows.
Who are the writers who inspire you the most? Are there any you’d especially recommend to our readers?
I marvel just about every day at what a great gift it is to live and write at the same time as poets like Angel Nafis, Nkosi Nkululeko, Alysia Harris, Tommy Pico, Ladan Osman, Cortney Lamar Charleston and others. They all have books out that you should buy. As of late, I’m persistently returning to the work of June Jordan, especially her essay collection, Some of Us Did Not Die. William Matthews and Thylias Moss and Denis Johnson are always on my mind. Hortense Spillers. Edouard Glissant. Joy James. All theorists that stretch my sense of what is possible on the page, and remind me of my foremost commitments.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I am finally learning how to be comfortable in a space of nonproduction. With stretches of time where the poems won’t come but I’m listening to music that unmoors me—this most recent Mal Devisa project, for instance, but also Solange’s A Seat At The Table, dvsn’s debut record, Sept. 5th, and pretty much anything D’Angelo ever recorded—or watching a film like Moonlight that I can’t quite shake, even when it’s been weeks, months, since my first encounter with the material. When I started writing in earnest, and thinking of it as a job, I was much harder on myself in this respect. Now I know that living well feeds the work. That writing beautifully is also about listening deeply, reading widely, and having the courage to wrestle with the unfamiliar on a daily basis.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Probably either boxing or therapy. Both have made an indelible impression on the way I think about the relationship between wellness and routine, the restorative power of ritual. There’s also something in there about the practice of gentleness, I think, and learning how to relax, that I am still working through.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best piece of writing advice I ever received was to stop thinking of all my voices (performer, essayist, literary critic) as distinct instruments. What’s helped me most—and this is an image I’m borrowing from Fred Moten—is instead to think of all the sounds and phrases I hear in my head, and am ultimately trying to refine or distill, as accompaniment. There’s no soloist, no dominant voice. Just a constellation of objects I can assemble into something lovely if I work at it.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I am currently working on a second collection of poems, as well as a forthcoming academic monograph on the uses of animal figures in 20th and 21st century African American literature. I’m also guest editing a special issue of Callaloo on elegy (you can find the call for work here: http://callaloo.tamu.edu/node/209.html) that will be out later this year. Lastly, I am collaborating with folks over at the Center for Justice at Columbia University on the June Jordan Fellowship, a new initiative that will bring several literary, visual, and performing artists to campus every fall semester in order to teach workshops geared primarily toward members of the NYC community living uptown.