Joshua Bennett is one of the most impressive emerging voices in poetry today. His debut collection, The Sobbing School, written in 2014 against the backdrop of a national crisis over state violence and black lives, won the 2015 National Poetry Series Award and is published this fall by Penguin—you can read three of his poems in the current issue of Dissent. Although he is making his debut in print, Bennett is already well known as an artist of the spoken word, whose performances have gained him a huge following on college campuses. He is also quietly building a reputation as one of the brightest intellectual and political thinkers of a new generation, and is currently a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows.
I first met Joshua at Princeton in the fall of 2011. Over five years of graduate study together, he has been a vital friend and a source of constant intellectual inspiration. He is the kind of person who gets you excited about thinking and reading again. In the pages of Dissent last year I suggested that his voice is part of a literary movement in which poetry and politics are converging in new and unexpected ways, exemplified, for instance, by the success of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. This September we met at Dissent’s office in downtown New York City to talk about the origins of his book, affect in poetry and politics, and what solidarities and imaginaries might point us towards a more hopeful future.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Listen to a recording of the full version of the conversation using the player below.
Jesse McCarthy: You open the book with “In Defense of Henry Box Brown.” Why did you choose to begin with this poem?
Joshua Bennett: In the nineteenth century, Henry Box Brown is enslaved in Virginia, and he escapes by mailing himself to the north, to Philadelphia, in a box. After he’s emancipated, he then replays the performance of mailing himself in a box and tours abroad. I’m fascinated by the idea that trauma is Brown’s condition of possibility, and that he replays the act of placing himself inside of this box later on in his life. We hear about the first part a lot—that Brown mailed himself to freedom—it’s part of the African-American cultural imaginary, and is remembered as this act of singular creativity. But I think it’s the second part of that narrative—where he becomes beholden to market forces and reopens that wound—that really captured my imagination. I’ve been a stage performer for so much of my career, which might be why I was so taken with his story. Part of why I wanted to open the book with this poem was because of the way it appears on the page, all of the text is pushed against the right margin, which is supposed to mimic Brown’s body in the box. What would it mean to start within the hold, to introduce to the reader to this new book, this new world, and to begin in captivity? In the poem, I write: “I know the respectable man enjoys a dark body best when it comes with a good cry thrown in.” Part of what I’m trying to do with opening there is to lay out the stakes for the rest of the book.
McCarthy: In those first few lines, you also evoke a father. Your father worked in the post office for forty years, and you grew up first in the Bronx, then in Yonkers. The cover of the book shows children playing in front of a burning building, which is in East Harlem, but for many people will evoke the Bronx burning. What does the Bronx mean to you? How does it come into this poem and this collection?
Bennett: My mother was born in the South Bronx, and grew up there with her mother, who was a sharecropper in the South and came up during the Great Migration. My mom lived in the Bronx with her siblings, her father, her mother, and her grandmother for many years before my great grandmother passed away. When my mom was growing up the Bronx was burning. My mom identifies so much of that environment with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and so I was raised to think about living in a city that’s being destroyed all around you and to always make the connection between that destruction and various forms of state-sponsored violence. You say that the cover is both the Bronx and Harlem simultaneously because of that violence and it makes me think about one of the poems in my book, “Black History Abridged,” which is centrally concerned with the all-black private school I went to when I was four. When the school was shut down, it was turned into a parking lot. For me that is such a resonant, and tragic, encapsulation of black life in the Americas. So much of how I came up was learning that history while I was living it; history and contemporary experience were always intertwined. My dad, who is seventy years old, lived in Jim Crow Alabama, integrated his high school, fought in Vietnam, then came up north with his brothers who moved to Brooklyn. My parents met in a dance club downtown. There’s a long New York history in the book. And, to return to your question about Henry Box Brown, there’s also this history of boxes. My mom lived in a tenement with eleven or so people, and my father talks about his love for black music coming from being in a bunker in Vietnam and listening to Stevie Wonder. That music kept him here—quite literally, he claims—in terms of his inner life, his desire to live.
McCarthy: That kind of gives me a bridge to thinking about a more abstract box, which is the notion of the school. Schools are very important in this book, and not just the physical school, but also schools of thought. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Bennett: The book’s title, The Sobbing School, comes from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” She writes, “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” For Hurston, what prevails over the larger ills of structural racism is a personal impetus to live, a jouissance. She’s referring to this idea that we can celebrate black life even within the myriad violences that make it up. Part of what I wanted to do with this book was not only celebrate, but linger with the need to mourn, especially living in a historical moment where black death is constantly on loop. You can’t open Twitter or Facebook casually. Even if you just want to check in on friends or post a meme you’re seeing black people dying, seeing black children dying, black girls, black women, black men dying, and our tax dollars pay for the bullets.
Much of The Sobbing School was written after August 9, 2014 when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson and his body was left to rot in the street. At that point I was dissertating and it all felt pointless, to be quite honest. Most of my scholarship is concerned with animality in African-American literature, how black authors have turned to animals to construct a theory of life over and against the death-dealing forces around them. It was surreal to see the way they left Mike out in the street like that, like an animal, or not even. There are animals they wouldn’t leave out in the street that way. I wrote The Sobbing School at a point when I was working on my PhD at Princeton and teaching at Columbia. On the last day of my African-American Studies class I had to tell my students that Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Eric Garner’s killer, is going to walk free, and there won’t even be an indictment. I’m teaching mostly black students, and many of them asked me, “What’s the point of going to Columbia? I could get killed tomorrow.” Part of what I was trying to work through in these poems was the seeming futility of the fact that I’d gone to these elite schools for much of my life, and yet still knew that I could die at any moment at the hands of a police officer or a vigilante. What I realized is that those ostensible protections were more or less meaningless. And what’s more, that the very safety I desired depended on all sorts of other violence being perpetrated against people that looked like me in order to maintain any semblance of validity or meaning.
Part of what I’m also wrestling with is what it means for black people to go to school in a country where they were historically barred from reading or writing, from gathering. What is the possibility of the black school, or something like a black school of thought, in a moment when historically black colleges and universities are under attack? For my mother and father, they thought the best way to help their kid find a different kind of life was to send him far away. I took two buses and a train every morning to attend a high school that was two hours away from my neighborhood. That’s what my parents thought the stakes were.
McCarthy: The book deals a lot with feeling. How do we recover certain kinds of love and pleasure and joy in the face of repeated tragedy or repeated devaluations of black life? Another poem I felt very drawn to is “Praise House.” In that poem there’s a real celebration of friendship and the solidarities that come with that. Just this past week you were reading with Nikki Giovanni at the Afropunk after hours; you’re reading with Claudia Rankine; you’ve worked with Terrance Hayes. Could you talk about the relationships and sources of influence that have helped you?
Bennett: I can’t imagine getting through school without my friends. And not only my friends, but various forms of black kinship that exceed and extend beyond that category: the folks in the dining hall who would let me in for free when I didn’t have dining dollars, the advisers who made sure I graduated on time. To riff on Foucault’s idea of friendship as a way of life, I have friends who have kept me alive in various different ways since I was quite young. The poets you mentioned—Terrance, Claudia, Nikki—but also the folks who blurbed the book: Eugene Gloria, the National Poetry Series judge who selected my manuscript, as well as Tracy K. Smith and Gregory Pardlo, two poets I greatly admire and owe tremendous debts, intellectually and otherwise, these are people who have taught me what it means to be part of a literary tradition that is ongoing, ever-expanding. I’m thinking about Amiri Baraka’s writing about Baldwin after he dies. Baraka often found himself apologizing—to Hansberry, to Baldwin—which is a critical component of any bond, I think. Is blackness another word for friendship, relation? I’m always working through this question. The first time I saw you at Princeton I thought, “Oh wow, there’s another black dude over there,” and this meant, to me, that I might have a shot at developing a rapport in what felt like a very hostile space. Much of what I’m wrestling with in the book is the idea that black social life is just this kind of sustaining force, this occasion through which we might imagine other, differently arranged worlds.
“Praise House,” for example, is in large part about a lot of my friends who were leaving the church, as it had been traditionally defined for us at least, around the same time. We loved the black church, each in our own way, but didn’t necessarily think we could live in it anymore. I found this Hammond organ in a thrift store one day and suggested that we start a house church in my spot in Washington Heights, where we would have weekly fellowship, readings, and play music like the music we grew up with. The culture that sustained us in those religious spaces, maybe we could still be a part of it, though in not quite the same way as before. I’m interested in pursuing a similar line of thinking in The Sobbing School. What can sustain us? If, for some of us, it’s not the spaces where we once felt safe or made whole, what can we imagine? What can we make?
McCarthy: There are recordings of some of your spoken word performances on YouTube. I was always taken by your performances of the poems that were about your brother and your brother is in this collection as well, in “Still Life with Little Brother” and many other places. Could you talk about him and how you’ve been able to think through a whole set of problems and questions through that love?
Bennett: My brother’s name is Levi. I still refer to him as Little Man sometimes, but he’s a big dude, about to be taller than me. He has great taste in music, loves Motown. Levi was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. Around that time, my family began to wrestle with a number of different questions about what it meant to raise a black boy with a developmental disability in a major city. His relationship to language would have to shift our relationship to language, for instance, but also my parents had to figure out how to take care of him on a more practical level. A big part of my parents’ concern was about him coming across police on his way home from school: how do we teach him ways to navigate that interaction safely? We’re seeing more people talking about this now, about black children and adults with disabilities and their encounters with law enforcement.
In the poem, “Levi,” I’m trying to work through the relationship between enslavement, state violence, and black thought, black thinking. Part of how I approach these questions is through the lens of “drapetomania,” a term invented by Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a nineteenth-century hack scientist, who claimed that slaves that tried to run away were afflicted by this condition. When I first learned about drapetomania, it struck me as this fascinating case in which the very desire for freedom was pathologized, and placed within the realm of disorder. My little brother has been largely nonverbal for most of his life, and in the early stages of the writing process for that poem I kept coming back to a certain sector of the western philosophical tradition wherein—following Descartes and others—if one did not speak, one was not human. If you could not elaborate your thinking through spoken language then you were not a person. And then also because of my brother’s blackness, he was not envisioned as a fully human person for any number of folks, but rather an object. My desire to think at that intersection was a large part of what moved me to apply to graduate school. When I first went to Princeton I was working primarily in the field of Disability Studies, which remains a central influence on my writing and thinking. I know that it was my desire to work toward a different world for my little brother which propelled me toward that field, and toward the broader intellectual project that is my central concern these days.
McCarthy: So you’re going to be touring with the book in the coming months?
Bennett: Yeah. I’m also doing a series of craft talks on emotion in African-American literature, so thinking about rage, melancholy, love, and joy, largely in response to Thomas Jefferson’s claim in Notes in the State of Virginia: “Among the blacks is misery enough, but no poetry.” And I have a couple readings coming up. Folks can email me if they want me to come out and read.
McCarthy: And you’re joining the Harvard Society of Fellows this fall. What will you be working on next?
Bennett: I’m turning my dissertation into a book, which is exciting. And I’m trying to turn the craft talks into a series of essays on emotion in African-American literature. I’ll be a scholar in residence at Adams House at Harvard and I’m also hoping to create a reading series where we have folks come through and read and share work with the undergraduate students. Another part of my ever-expanding dream is to create a database of African-American poetry, a space to hear Jupiter Hammon, hear Phillis Wheatley, hear Terrance Hayes, hear Sonia Sanchez, hear Nikki Giovanni, hear the work read by a constellation of different voices. I want to build something like that. I want to see that sort of work in the world.
Jesse McCarthy is a graduate student at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Kinfolks Quarterly, The Point, and The Nation.
Joshua Bennett is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), and is currently a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.