Here is a fascinating history of the art form that has transformed the cultural landscape, by one of its influential practitioners, an award-winning poet, professor, and slam champion.
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.
“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
“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
“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