Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Hardcover)
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A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • A “rich hybrid of memoir and history” (The New Yorker) of the literary art form that has transformed the cultural landscape, by one of its influential practitioners, an award-winning poet, professor, and slam champion
“Bennett…transport[s] us back to the city blocks, bars, cafes and stages these artists traversed and inhabited…an instructive text for young poets, artists or creative entrepreneurs trying to find a way to carve out a space for themselves…Shines with a refreshing dynamism.” —The New York Times
In 2009, when he was twenty years old, Joshua Bennett was invited to perform a spoken word poem for Barack and Michelle Obama, at the same White House "Poetry Jam" where Lin-Manuel Miranda declaimed the opening bars of a work-in-progress that would soon revolutionize American theater. That meeting is but one among many in the trajectory of Bennett's young life, as he rode the cresting wave of spoken word through the 2010s. In this book, he goes back to its roots, considering the Black Arts movement and the prominence of poetry and song in Black education; the origins of the famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side living room of the visionary Miguel Algarín, who hosted verse gatherings with legendary figures like Ntozake Shange and Miguel Piñero; the rapid growth of the "slam" format that was pioneered at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago; the perfect storm of spoken word's rise during the explosion of social media; and Bennett's own journey alongside his older sister, whose work to promote the form helped shape spaces online and elsewhere dedicated to literature and the pursuit of human freedom.
A celebration of voices outside the dominant cultural narrative, who boldly embraced an array of styles and forms and redefined what—and whom—the mainstream would include, Bennett's book illuminates the profound influence spoken word has had everywhere melodious words are heard, from Broadway to academia, from the podiums of political protest to cafés, schools, and rooms full of strangers all across the world.
About the Author
JOSHUA BENNETT is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), which was a National Poetry Series selection and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is also the author of Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), Owed (Penguin, 2020), The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022). He has received fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He is a Professor of English at Dartmouth College.
“It is in the telling that the true magic of spoken word, and Bennett’s intricate exploration of its origin stories, comes alive . . . A tender and heartwarming narrative of the evolution of an art form from a passionate, charismatic participant who was on the ground, in the audience and on the stage himself . . . Bennett renders this lush history in lively, captivating prose, smoothly transporting us back to the city blocks, bars, cafes and stages these artists traversed and inhabited . . . Beneath the broad umbrella of a ‘cultural history,’ the book also serves as something even more remarkable—as a kind of manual, an instructive text for young poets, artists or creative entrepreneurs trying to find a way to carve out a space for themselves in the larger universe of poetry . . . What makes this book shine with a refreshing dynamism is that this history is also [Bennett’s] own.” —Tas Tobey, New York Times
“[A] rich hybrid of memoir and history [that] surveys the institutions that have shaped spoken-word poetry for the past five decades . . . Bennett, a poet himself, pays tribute to his literary forebears . . . [and] chronicles the mainstreaming, for better or worse, of a radical tradition.” —The New Yorker
“The art of the spoken word, as Joshua Bennett acknowledges in his new cultural history, Spoken Word ‘is the Western world’s oldest form of literary expression.’ . . . [Bennett] mingles his own experiences with his reporting. From the moment he delivered a poem called “Tamara’s Opus” in front of the 44th president and the first lady — it was about his relationship with his older sister and her disability (deafness) — he knew, he writes, why poetry mattered to him: ‘It left me nowhere to hide.’ . . . While competing with his collegiate slam team at the University of Pennsylvania, Bennett absorbed a powerful lesson from a mentor. He learned that performance poetry could be interpreted as an ‘insistence on his own survival.’ That’s a ringing endorsement for this art form, and this book.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Joshua Bennett, one of the genre's most exciting and knowledgeable writers, provides a wide-ranging cultural history of this form in his new book Spoken Word (Knopf). It's a story that takes him from the Obama White House to Broadway to street corners and cafés across the country to hear the song of America.” —Ron Charles, CBS News
“A talented poet in his own right, Bennett (Owed, 2020) turns his attention to tracing the lineage and celebrating the impact of spoken word poetry in the U.S. . . . Composed in dynamic, interlocking scenes, the story unfolds effortlessly despite the scholarly rigor and research evident in the writing. . . . Bennett succeeds in his efforts to "reclaim the political ethos and persistent dreaming" of spoken word poetry's bright past and brighter future.” —Diego Báez, Booklist
“This marvelous and magnificent book on the recent past and present of Spoken Word touches hearts and minds in a soulful way! Bennett’s beautiful prose and powerful stories glow from his early Black Church origins, through his Ivy-league education, grassroots poetic formation to his precious son August Galileo listening to Coltrane! Don’t miss this superb laying bare of Black joy and genius!” —Cornel West
“Anyone who has felt the heart-racing, heart-aching, heart-breaking atmosphere of a spoken word venue; anyone who revels in the word play performance poets let reverberate on a page; poets who spit fire (of course, nothing less will do)—this is for you. Bennett captures lightning in a bottle: not just a few of spoken word’s historical touchstones, but glimpses of all that the form has wrought in its various illustrious afterlives. In addition to a history, Bennett’s work is an apt translation of the atmosphere to the page, of the history to the present, of the momentum of it all . . . Bennett clarifies for us that spoken word is no passing fad, swept away by the passage of time. It is, instead, howling wind that deserves our respect for how it transforms everything, leaving the world more exposed, more open, and more beautiful in its wake.” —Therí A. Pickens, author of Black Madness :: Mad Blackness
“Joshua Bennett wasn’t on the sidelines observing the spoken word revolution he was in it . . . It is rare to find such a nuanced and erudite record from an insider of a culture. A must-read for all interested in poetry, culture and its evolution.” —Roger Robinson, author of Home is Not a Place
“A galvanizing, thoroughgoing history of rare literary quality. Dr Joshua Bennett is courageously personal and honest in his account, but it’s a passion which speaks to all of us, and to anyone still finding their voice or the nerve to take that risk, from the back room of the local arts center to the biggest stages in the world. All written with the detail, lyricism, imagination and intellect of a seasoned poet. I feel more hopeful and excited for having read it.” —Luke Kennard, author of Notes on the Sonnets
“Joshua Bennett’s memoir and cultural history is a stirring reminder that no other art form is grounded in, and centers, community like spoken word does. I loved reading about how, through care, dedication, and will, spaces were forged that allowed voices from any and everywhere to come, be heard, and develop into some of the most radical and vital truth tellers of our times.” —Rishi Dastidar, author of Saffron Jack
“In this immersive blend of cultural history and memoir, poet Bennett (The Sobbing School) traces the development of spoken-word poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the present day. . . Bennett’s enthusiasm for the subject leaps off the page, highlighting the resilience and adaptability of poetry and making clear how important the collective is to its progress. It’s a spirited introduction to a vibrant art form.” —Publishers Weekly
“Bennett, a Dartmouth English professor and poet who counts Guggenheim and National Endowment of the Arts fellowships among his many honors, traces the widespread cultural influence of spoken word poetry, from its 20th-century beginnings in New York to its 21st-century proliferation in digital media. . . . . A well-researched, invigorating celebration of a spirited art form.” —Kirkus Reviews