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How a new sound hit center stage

Joshua Bennett’s latest book chronicles how the spoken-word poetry movement took hold in America.
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The book cover is in a collaged style, and has historical, newsprint-style portraits of Black poets and speakers, and says, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History. Joshua Bennett.”
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Caption: Joshua Bennett is the author of the new book, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History.”
Credits: Image: Courtesy of Tory Preston-Djamboe and MIT Literature

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The book cover is in a collaged style, and has historical, newsprint-style portraits of Black poets and speakers, and says, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History. Joshua Bennett.”
Joshua Bennett is the author of the new book, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History.”
Image: Courtesy of Tory Preston-Djamboe and MIT Literature

In 1973, Miguel Algarín, an assistant professor in the English Department at Rutgers University, started inviting friends over to his Manhattan apartment for a weekly poetry session where they would read their material, edit each other’s work, and push each other creatively.

After a while, these meetings outgrew Algarín’s living room and moved to a venue he helped found on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — the Nuyorican Poets Café, which by the 1990s became the leading poetry performance space in the U.S., famed as the home of poetry slams, or competitions.

The Nuyorican Poets Café is not where the poetry slam originated, however. That was at a place called the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago, in the mid-1980s, following the lead of a poetry-loving construction worker, Marc Smith. These competitions soon spread across the U.S., fueled by practitioners who wanted to craft poetry designed for performance. In so doing, these participants revitalized an age-old art form — which has since spread through films, television shows like HBO’s early-2000s “Def Poetry” series, and YouTube.

None of this was inevitable, however. It took dedication from artists who — like their art form — had been marginalized by existing cultural institutions and wound up building some of their own.

“It’s quite incredible to see how these friendships, and chance meetings in bars and cafes and performance venues, helped create a sound that we hear across the world,” says Joshua Bennett, a prominent performance poet, author, and MIT scholar.  

Now Bennett explores this landscape in a new book, “Spoken Word: A Cultural History,” just published by Knopf. In it, Bennett chronicles multiple strands of the spoken-word poetry movement, provides vivid portraits of key figures within it, and recounts his own career to date, often in relation to the growth of the genre itself.

“I’m tracing together individual points of contact, people I’ve met over my life and venues I’ve performed in, while creating this much larger history that spans about 50 years,” says Bennett, who is currently a visiting professor at MIT and will be joining the faculty full-time this summer.

Filling the room on a Friday night

To write “Spoken Word,” Bennett conducted archival research, digging into old newspapers, documents, and manuscripts, while interviewing major poets and other facilitators of the movement.

Many people Bennett discusses in the book have had multilayered artistic sensibilities. Algarín often taught Shakespeare to his students, while working to spotlight contemporary poets who were Black, Puerto Rican, or from other cultures overlooked by arts institutions. In his view, there was no insuperable distinction between these poetic forms.

“He [Shakespeare] wanted to have a place to tell the story of England; so I wanted to have a place in which to tell the story of the Lower East Side,” Algarín once explained. The term “Nuyorican” itself is a fusion, of “New York” and “Puerto Rican” (which, as Bennett notes, Algarín first encountered as a word of derision, then adopted as a term of honor).

The competitive aspect of poetry slams has turned out to have multiple benefits, providing motivation for performers and helping shape the spoken-word style. Not least, it has proven very popular.

“It’s a way to get people in the door,” Bennett observes. “Competition is helpful sometimes, a competitive framing. This is an age-old adage in poetry slam: The point isn’t the points, the point is the poetry. But we’re still very competitive about it. And it is good to get people in there on a Friday night.”

Significantly, the format has helped highlight new voices, not just familiar faces. Saul Williams, the poet, actor, songwriter, and musician, was a theater student at New York University who in the mid-1990s decided to perform the only poem he had written, at the Brooklyn Moon Café. Williams’ rendition of the work, “Amethyst Rocks,” created a sensation; soon he became Grand Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café, and launched a career in film, music, and verse.

An organized team sport

In the book, Bennett also situates the spoken-word movement in relationship to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, which sought new modes of expression, pedagogy, and organization. Bennett himself began performing poetry as a child, encouraged by his parents, and became a standout in college poetry slams while at the University of Pennsylvania.

As an undergraduate, Bennett was even invited to perform at the White House in 2009 — at an event where Lin-Manuel Miranda also offered the first-ever public performance of material from his soon-to-be blockbuster musical, “Hamilton.” There, Bennett performed “Tamara’s Opus,” a poem about his deaf sister that offers an apology for his own slow adoption of sign language.

As Bennett makes clear, the spoken-word movement has helped generate cultural organizations, community programs, and college competitions such as the ones that earned him notice, providing structure, training, and socially grounded opportunities for creativity. Such programs also give young people valuable writing and public-speaking skills.  

“This is where we need to be investing as a country,” Bennett says. “Not just because we want to help train a larger number of poets — though it would be cool, it would be amazing — but because it’s a toolkit you can take into any other field of human endeavor, whether you’re a lawyer, journalist, teacher, nurse, doctor. Being able to memorize long passages and speak in front of people without fear — that’s important. Spoken word and poetry slam in particular helps you to master that skill. You have three minutes to get across a point of view. That’s a real training ground, and it’s been proven out over the last 30 or 40 years — through a generation of writers, intellectuals, and changemakers.”

Going digital, and going global

In the early 2010s, Bennett also helped found Strivers Row, a poetry collaborative with a strong online presence. It was soon followed by another group, Button Poetry, a hybrid of a YouTube channel and publisher with a million followers online. The two groups have helped show that online performance is a viable commercial pathway for poets.

“There is this whole digital component that I think is actually quite beautiful and important as a way of taking up this ancient art form and getting it out to people who need it, across the world,” Bennett says.

“Spoken Word” has received praise from many quarters. Therí A. Pickens, a professor of English at Bates College, has said that “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.” Writing in The New York Times, Tas Tobey called it a “vibrant cultural history” and an “engaging meditation.”

“Spoken Word” is a distinctive part of Bennett’s own published output, which incluces the poetry collection, “The Sobbing School” (2016), and “Being Once Property Myself” (2020), a work of historical literary criticism.

Back in 2009, after Bennett performed at the White House, he recalls, “I went back to my hotel room, and I felt this intense pressure. … What would I ever do to top this?” His answer over time has been to keep pursuing spoken-word poetry as a writer and performer, while spreading the joy of poetry as a teacher, and even a parent reading verse to his child. As a distinctive new history of the movement, “Spoken Word” is part of that effort.

“How do I top this? Well, I’ll go out and live,” Bennett says. “I’ll go out and live a life that’s hopefully worthy of this tradition. And I’ll pass that tradition on to my children, and to my students. That’s the joy of my life, being a father and husband and professor who has a chance to talk about poems every week with brilliant students. What an opportunity.”

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