Saturdays, it was my job to pick the bones from cans of fish which became the unwieldy piles of pink flesh that, once fried, became the cakes we ate for dinner that night, breakfast the next
day, dinner again to close the loop. Decades passed before I saw the beast in real time, realized, like Baldwin— who once saw his mother lift a yard of velvet, say this is a good idea, and for months thought ideas were shocks
of black fabric—that salmon lived outside the bounds of Foodtown shelves we searched for deals in the early 90’s, supermarket circulars held tight
in our too-small hands, armaments against American cost. Older now, a literary type with insurance to boot, I tell this story to my lover
at our kitchen table, unsure of what I am trying to convey, exactly. Something about the flexible nature of human knowledge,
perhaps: a speed course in semiotics over poached eggs. Or maybe some version of the same tale I am always telling, that the wall
between the world & me grew weaker once I left what I loved. Children of the poor, their small words
& smaller sense of scale. Back then, life on Earth was Yonkers, NY & my grandmother’s salon.
Every leather-bound book was a Word of God. And there I was, an affront to history, creative, even in my ignorance, sketching planets
in the air as my big sister sang soul outside my bedroom window, her voice like something ancient and winged, pulling summer into being.
A few good words with Joshua
BVS: In “Trash,” what interested me most was the spidery-web connectivity of a childhood world(s) and the adult world(s), and what is lost in trying to translate experience to someone outside of it. Does writing moments like this help you process, or communicate, or understand how you relate to your younger self? How was writing this poem different from telling this story to the lover in the kitchen?
JB: I don’t think that my poems ever help me process the past, per se. It’s more so that I’m always looking, especially in my personal history, for instruments for living I can pass on to a given reader. When I read a text like James Baldwin’sNo Name in The Street, and reflect back on those opening pages, I’m also always considering how I can both share the strategies his origin story gave me for thinking about my own life, while simultaneously trying to undertake the process of a more self-contained form of reflection on the page in real time, in and through the poem’s movement. The writing and the form of the poem alike constitute this journey. It’s ongoing. Writing this poem was different than telling the story in the kitchen, at least in part, because I didn’t choose the audience for this version of the narrative at hand. I’m setting it free in hopes that it lands somewhere, and is useful.
It also bears mentioning that “Trash” is a section taken from of a much longer poem of the same title, one that’s working transversally through issues of climate catastrophe, black disposability, and my relationship with spaces, language, and modes of being in the world that are ritually degraded within our present episteme. The first summer job I ever had was picking up trash at my private school in upstate New York. I was raised by and around men that many would say represented the absolute lowest rung of the social order, the black male jobless and working poor, the level below which one could not conceivably go. This poem, alongside a whole host of others I’m working on at the moment, is my attempt to reclaim and reimagine the worlds we made, and the language we used to describe them.
BVS: Tell our readers about your writing process—is it something fluid and organic? Do you plan time to write? Listen to music? In bed or the coffee shop? How does writing in different spaces change the work?
JB: I’m always working on one project or another, so I have done my best in recent years to make time for some kind of writing every day. I try not to be too precious about genre on this front. Whether it’s an article, a poem, a research proposal or a personal essay, when I sit down to work, I am thinking about it as means of cultivating habits of mind that I hope to maintain for the rest of my life. I do most of my writing in motion. Much of my dissertation and first collection of poems were written on buses, trains and flights back home. When I’m in one place for a few days, I’m at a café with friends or writing in bed (sans laptop desk these days, though I intend to return to that strategy soon enough). I just moved full-time to New England, and got a new office in the English department at Dartmouth, so I’m curious to see how living and working in the presence of the snow, the trees, the mountains and rivers and attendant fauna will affect my writing. In small ways, I can already sense the pace and tone of my work shifting a bit. The scale has escalated and expanded, if that makes sense. I can feel everything.
BVS: What poets feel like family (but aren’t)? What poems feel like play-cousins?
The poets that feel like family to me span time and space, region, as well as the porous plane between the living and the dead. I was raised on and by Gwendolyn Brooks, Otis Redding, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Donny Hathaway. Poets like Gregory Pardlo, Thylias Moss, Saul Williams, Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Camille Dungy and Sunni Patterson taught me how to balance my love for both performance and the page. In their work, as well as in my real-world interactions with them, these folks have given me advice, and helped me better understand myself as part of the black aesthetic tradition. As one of many, and never alone.
I’ve never thought of poems as play-cousins, and will have to sit with that formulation for a while. But the first works that come to mind are all nature poems: Gerald Barrax’s “To Waste at Trees,” Ed Roberson’s “be careful” and Lucille Clifton’s “cutting greens.” All of these are poems that, like any play cousin, taught me something indelible about the workings of the world, and my place in it. They remind me of how important it is to go outside, and to always make time for wonder.
Dr. Joshua Bennett is an Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016)—which was a National Poetry Series selection and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award—as well as Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man, which is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Bennett holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, and an M.A. in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Warwick, where he was a Marshall Scholar.
Dr. Bennett has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Ford Foundation, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry and elsewhere. He has recited his original works at venues such as the Sundance Film Festival, the Clinton Global Citizen Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. Penguin Books will publish Bennett’s second collection of poems, Owed, in 2020.