Buried under a mountain of reading and coursework, it’s hard for a graduate student to find time for any artistic passion outside the classroom, let alone maintain a prominent arts career.
But for performance poet Joshua Bennett, a first-year Ph.D. student in English, the solution is simple. “In bed,” Bennett explained. “Almost every poem I’ve written in bed.”
Bennett achieved national fame through competitive “slam poetry” events while he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. While he no longer competes, Bennett remains an active spoken-word poet, performing at venues around the country. He also does hip-hop and writes brief poems on his Twitter page, noting that the 140-character limit is “great for parsimony.”
In 2009, Bennett was among the artists invited to perform at the first White House Poetry Jam. In the audience were President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama ’85, and about 200 guests.
“Spoken word is written for the stage, as opposed to being written for the page,” Bennett said. He approaches his poems as a storyteller would, describing himself as “an Afro-futurist hypernerd with a penchant for telling stories that end with someone falling in love.”
In both his poems and his studies, Bennett said, he is interested in “destabilizing certain ideas around race, religion, disability, gender, [and] sexuality.”
But most of Bennett’s poems “tie back to family somehow,” he said, and he draws inspiration from his siblings who have disabilities. An older brother has schizophrenia, his younger brother has autism, and his older sister is deaf; the poem he performed at the White House, “Tamara’s Opus,” is about his struggle to communicate with her. “I was raised in a family in which difference was thought of in a really interesting way,” he said.
Bennett, who spent a year as a Marshall scholar before coming to Princeton, plans to become a professor.
While grateful for the intellectual training that Princeton has given him, Bennett sometimes finds campus life to be solitary. “I have not found an arts community here that is interested in spoken word, hip-hop, or aerosol art” — also known as graffiti — he said. “Part of my hope is to help remake the space in certain ways.”
He will perform for the first time on the Princeton campus at an April 6 open-mic event he has organized at the Carl A. Fields Center For Equality and Cultural Understanding, where he is a graduate fellow. He hopes it will draw both Princeton students and New York artists.
Bennett can sound poetic even on a subject as somber as the stresses of graduate-student life: “Even when it feels like my heart is breaking, or that my mind is breaking under the pressure, I think it’s breaking open into something — and something beautiful will grow from it.”
Video courtesy of the White House