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Spoken Word

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In 2009, when he was twenty years old, Joshua Bennett was invited to perform a spoken word poem for the Obamas, 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. But in this book, he is not a memoirist so much as a participant historian, who goes back to the roots of the spoken word form, 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; the stories and perspectives of many others on this journey, as they helped shape spaces dedicated to literature as practiced with urgency by people of color and to 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.

304 pages. Paperback.

About the Author

Joshua Bennett is the author of five books of poetry, criticism, and narrative nonfiction: Spoken Word: A Cultural History (Knopf, 2023); The Study of Human Life (Penguin, 2022), which was a winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, longlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Massachusetts Book Award, and is currently being adapted for television in collaboration with Warner Brothers Studios; Owed (Penguin, 2020), a finalist for the New England Book Award; Being Property Once Myself (Harvard University Press, 2020), winner of the MLA’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize, and The Sobbing School (Penguin, 2016), winner of the National Poetry Series and a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. 

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