How Poetry and Performance Combined to Become a New Genre
SPOKEN WORD: A Cultural History, by Joshua Bennett
“What you say, and how you say it, means everything,” Joshua Bennett writes in the introduction to his vibrant cultural history of spoken word poetry. “Truth is embedded in the telling. Indeed, the telling is another kind of truth altogether.”
It is in the telling that the true magic of spoken word, and Bennett’s intricate exploration of its origin stories, comes alive. “Spoken Word” is an engaging meditation on the history of a literary and cultural movement that would take hold in the realms of music, theater, film, television and, of course, poetry.
The book defines spoken word as “an art form where written verse is crafted expressly with the intention of being performed,” and Bennett meticulously tracks its evolution from the earliest days of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, to the first iterations of slam poetry, to the current landscape of writers and artists who rose to prominence as spoken word poets before finding success as musicians, actors, professors, activists or literary heavyweights. Drawing on in-depth research and a far-reaching reservoir of interviews with key players — as well as his own personal narrative — Bennett focuses most on the spaces and characters that brought it all together.
As one might expect, the history of spoken word is in essence “a story about race, music and the pursuit of human dignity.” That story begins in the heart of a neighborhood known as Loisaida (after “Lower East Side” and “Loiza,” a Puerto Rican town that the journalist and Columbia professor Ed Morales describes as “the heart of African culture on the island”).In 1973, a diverse group of artists began convening there in the living room of the Nuyorican’s eventual founder: a poet, writer and Rutgers professor named Miguel Algarín. They came from various backgrounds with different styles and approaches, and were bound less by aesthetic than by a sense of companionship in the struggle to find a creative home and identity — “to hold one another up in a world that did not understand them,” as Bennett puts it.
“The sessions in Algarín’s living room were some combination of a rent party and a rehearsal for the future world,” Bennett writes, “a space forged squarely at the intersections of not only amateur and expert, poetry and drama, but elite academe and state prison, Black feminism and decolonial critique.”
When the Nuyorican poets outgrew Algarín’s living room they moved their weekly readings to a bar across the street until Algarín opened his own cafe on East Third Street in 1978. (The building closed its doors in 1982, but reopened seven years later and returned to prominence amid the era’s “spoken-word renaissance.”)
This renaissance was fueled both by the invention of slam — a competitive form of spoken word in which five judges chosen at random from the audience score each poet’s performance — and by the simultaneous explosion of hip-hop. Its hold was further secured, as Bennett notes, by the 2002 HBO series “Def Poetry,” which ran for six seasons and introduced spoken word poetry to mainstream culture. Featuring a broad range of poets from across the literary and musical spectrum (Staceyann Chin, Black Ice, Nikki Giovanni, the rapper DMX), the series cemented the connection between spoken word and the larger hip-hop culture, and inspired a Tony-winning Broadway play, “Def Poetry Jam.” A wave of national and international youth poetry slam teams and festivals followed.
Bennett renders this lush history in lively, captivating prose, smoothly transporting us back to the city blocks, bars, cafes and stages these artists traversed and inhabited. Perhaps most endearingly, and what makes this book shine with a refreshing dynamism, is that this history is also his own. Having “lived out every part of the story” he hopes to tell, he is uniquely qualified to walk readers through the story of spoken word.
A celebrated poet, author and professor of English at Dartmouth with three acclaimed poetry collections and a book of nonfiction behind him, Bennett weaves his own narrative throughout. In these personal snapshots we meet Bennett as a child when he discovers his love of language at his grandmother’s beauty shop on 125th Street: “I did not yet know how to spell the word ‘cosmetologist,’ but I loved that it reminded me of both comic books and comets, my favorite things back then.”
In one tender recollection from his time at the Modern School in Harlem, Bennett describes how every day would begin with James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was the only national anthem he knew at that young age. Along with hundreds of classmates “from across the entire span of the African diaspora,” he would sing the hymn from memory, assembled in an auditorium “that reflected the beauty of our Blackness back to us.” We see him as a high school senior competing at a citywide youth poetry slam at the Nuyorican; as a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, invited to read his poetry for the Obamas at the White House; as a youth slam team member featured in HBO’s “Brave New Voices” (2008) on the road to an international slam competition; as a founding member, with his sister and brother-in-law, of the Strivers Row, a collective of Black poets that toured internationally. We also see him as a young father, glancing back at the world he helped usher into the digital era.
It’s been a rich life, and Bennett’s decision to interweave its details with the rich history of spoken word only rarely results in unwieldy pacing or chronology. This book is not only a thoroughly researched and engrossing history by an accomplished and qualified academic, but also, and perhaps more significantly, a tender and heartwarming narrative of the evolution of an art form from a passionate, charismatic participant who was on the ground, in the audience and on the stage himself.
In this way, beneath the broad umbrella of a “cultural history,” the book also serves as something even more remarkable — as a kind of manual, an instructive text for young poets, artists or creative entrepreneurs trying to find a way to carve out a space for themselves in the larger universe of poetry.
“Simply put, spoken word is the best possible rejoinder to anyone claiming that poetry in this country is dead or not relevant to younger generations,” Bennett writes. After reading his book, it seems difficult to do anything but wholeheartedly agree.
Tas Tobey is on the staff of the Book Review and is studying poetry in the M.F.A. program at the City College of New York.
SPOKEN WORD: A Cultural History | By Joshua Bennett | 284 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30