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I “The Spoken Word: A Cultural History”. (Noff), Joshua Bennett looks at the development of this dynamic form of poetry, including diverse voices in poetry collectives, slam contests, and the influence of social media.

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“The Spoken Word: A Cultural History” by Joshua Bennett (Hardcover)

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It was the spring semester of 2009, and I was alone in my dorm room, going over my film class notes on Spike Lee, trying to make a connection. Malcolm X And Mo’ Better Blues In a way that felt completely real. Blow and exile. Under the skies Played as loud as my second-generation MacBook will allow. Nearing the end of my junior year, I was a fresh-minded double major in English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I lived in WEB Du Bois College House: a dormitory on the edge of Penn’s campus named for the philosopher, sociologist, novelist, and poet. Although Du Bois himself had a truly painful time as a faculty member at the university in 1896—he was neither allowed to hold an office nor teach students during his time at Penn. As one might expect to see on a college campus: students from all over the world, mostly black and brown, choosing to live in this place to emphasize social justice, the arts, and the celebration of cultural practices of the African diaspora. do .

It was in Uniquely Surrounded by the charismatic pride of hip-hop and dancehall, the steel boom of soca and compa, hallways filled with laughter and conversation—that I looked up from my notes to see a missed call from a California area code. Whoever it was left a voicemail message. I turned down the music and listened to the phone. The voice on the other side was James Kass, founder and executive director of the non-profit poetry organization Youth Speaks. Without much in the way of a lead-up, and with a note of obvious pleasure in his voice, James had asked if I would be interested in reciting one of my poems at the White House. I would have to agree to a full background check and be ready to go within the next week.

I still remember looking at the phone, and then at the ceiling, and then at the table in front of my twin bed, covered with textbooks and printed notes. I froze and sat there for some time. I returned James’ call, and after what may have been the shortest bout of small talk in my entire life (“Hi, James, it’s Josh — got your message. What’s up now, Exactly?”), we get to the point. Voicemail James told me that if I was interested, I would have the opportunity to recite my original work in the East Room with various literary and dramatic figures. He didn’t have any other information to share at that point (which was fine with me, given how strong the initial pitch was) and instructed me to stay by the phone. Within a few minutes I got a call from Stan Leithan who told me all the details.

At this point, I had known Stan personally for a little over a year, though I was familiar with his work from a childhood spent watching him with family and friends. During his career, he collected directing and producing credits. Def Comedy Jam, Deaf poetry, Sister sisterAnd Martin Along with numerous other black American televisual touchstones. In 2008, he produced an HBO documentary called Brave new voices.which included poetry slam teams from across the country as they headed towards the International Youth Slam competition of the same name. When I was a freshman at Penn, I won a spot on the Philadelphia team that won the 2007 Brave New Voices title: a collection of college students from Philadelphia-area schools and teenagers from around the city, who I included everything from lyrics to styles. Poetry from the page to the verses that emphasized the height of hip-hop styles that lifted us up. In 2008 we were ready to return to BNV again, hoping to perform again. Weeks before the trip, we learned that the entire competition, as well as the road leading up to it, would be filmed by HBO. Our team was one of five that will soon be featured in a televised documentary. For the better part of three months, cameras followed us everywhere: to our respective campuses, and even to the neighborhoods where we grew up. They recorded our weekly practices as well as our fundraising efforts on the streets of West Philadelphia: hours spent reciting poems in shifts at the intersection of 40th and Walnut, right in front of the movie theater, my red New Era A fitted hat is left upside down on the sidewalk to collect cash donations from passersby.

after the Brave new voices. After the documentary aired, Stan helped create all kinds of other opportunities for me to share my work with the world. Three months before the White House ceremony, he invited me to perform at the 2009 NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles. Now he was inviting me to DC, this time only I would be on stage. No friends or teammates—just me, and a microphone, and one of the hundreds of poems I’d drawn in various black-and-white notebooks over the years. According to Stein, for the event in question, An evening of poetry, music and spoken word, I had to perform a new, original work—a two-minute poem, to be exact—on the subject of communication. The audience will include President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I thanked him for the opportunity and hung up.

After the call, I spent the next ten minutes running laps around my dorm room — not my dorm room, but the entire Du Bois College house — to clean up. It took me a day or two, but I finally settled on the poem I would recite: “Tamara’s Opus,” an ode to my older sister. The theme of the poem was my relationship with Tamara, who is deaf, and by extension my relationship with American Sign Language, which I struggled to learn as a child. Given the theme, and the stakes of the moment, I knew I couldn’t share another poem at this stage. If I had an audience with the president, even if it was just for two minutes, that was the message I wanted to get across to him.

Excerpted from “The Spoken Word: A Cultural History” by Joshua Bennett, Copyright 2023 by Joshua Bennett. Published by Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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