Joshua Bennett on reading “pursuing the wonder”

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BENNETT: I was on a Guggenheim Fellowship and one of the nice things about it was being able to read outside of the classroom. Just returned to Major Jackson’s “Hoops” collection, which I really enjoyed. I worked on an installation that celebrates the poetry of black nature, which just opened at the New York Botanical Garden. I have collaborated with horticulturalists and poets on a symposium for this, and one of them recommended Effie Lee Newsome’s “Gladiola Garden” collection, a book of flower poetry for children which has been published decades ago. I read that too.

BOOKS: Which poets do you read the most?

BENNETT: As often as possible, I start the semester with June Jordan’s poem “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America.” June was an American Mount Rushmore essayist and also an incredible poet. Christopher Gilbert, in particular his collection “Turning Into Dwelling”, Jack Gilbert, BH Fairchild and William Matthews are also poets that I cherish. The same goes for Aracelis Girmay, who also writes great children’s books, which I read to my boy. “Change, Change”, so good.

BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?

BENNETT: I read and wrote poetry at 4 years old. I went to The Modern School in Harlem, and we memorized poetry there. The school was founded by the great poet Mildred Johnson, whose father was co-author of the black national anthem. We sang that every morning. At school or in church, poetry was all around me. My sister had a copy of the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou taped to her bedroom door.

BOOKS: What were your poetry reading habits as a teenager?

BENNETT: Voracious, partly because my high school was two hours away in Rye. I always read on the bus or the train. I also read Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West. It helped shape what I wanted to do in college. I had never heard of African American studies. I was also traveling to New York to perform in poetry slams.

BOOKS: What do you read when you’re not reading poetry?

BENNETT: All sorts of things. My first book of literary criticism is almost entirely devoted to novels such as “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward and “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison, which is the first novel I have ever seen in my life. My sister had the black hardcover with rose-tinted pages that made it look like the Bible.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste for fiction?

BENNETT: I like an expansive world and language that feels epic. I love authors like Percival Everett, who aren’t afraid to be funny. With fiction or non-fiction, I want to be teleported to another world, maybe with rules I don’t even understand.

BOOKS: Did you read anything that surprised you by how much you liked it?

BENNETT: “Real Air” by David Berman. Reading that and Denis Johnson and Thylias Moss were a big influence on me. I didn’t know you could use that kind of language, that kind of subject, in a poem. I was raised in poetry slams and my early works were deeply personal, deeply political and with accessible language. The idea was that everyone should be able to understand it easily. These poets taught me to trust my reader more.

BOOKS: How?

BENNETT: Oprah Winfrey once asked Toni Morrison, “What do you say to people who have trouble understanding your work? Morrison said, “That’s what I call reading.” There is something beyond comprehension. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned from the black church, to pursue amazement, to pursue the times when you feel speechless or can’t quite grasp what you’re feeling. It doesn’t have to be a scary moment. It can be a moment of intense beauty and power. It’s normal not to know what’s going on sometimes.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Saving Penny Jane” and can be reached at [email protected].


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