Dartmouth College professor Joshua Bennett found himself the recipient of two prestigious honors this month. On April 10, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, one of two fellows in American literature; four days later, it was announced that he had won a Whiting Award, a prize given annually to support 10 emerging authors of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. For Bennett, the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth and the author of two volumes of poetry (“The Sobbing School” and “Owed”) and a work of literary criticism (“Being Property Once Myself”), the prizes mean he can take a year off and work on his forthcoming book, a cultural history of spoken word poetry. We talked with Bennett by phone from his home in Braintree, where he lives with his wife and infant son.
Q. What does it feel like to win a Whiting Award and become a Guggenheim fellow in the same span of days?
A. It’s absolutely surreal. [One thing I said was] Wow, we can fix the roof now! On the one hand, just the fact that I can help take care of some practical concerns — not only the roof but student loan debt, put away some money for my son’s education — and on the other hand, to be part of those traditions. So many writers that I’ve studied since I first really started to think of myself as someone who wanted to be a writer, someone that could contribute to American literature in a meaningful way, you know, those are people that have won the Whiting before. It’s an absolute honor and I don’t know if it’s set in yet, the reality of it.
Q. On the Whiting’s page, I think you’re one of the few people to have been listed as a winner in two categories — for you, both poetry and nonfiction — and I’m curious: How do you balance those different sides of yourself as a writer? And also, how do you balance yourself as a writer, a professor, and a father?
A. I’ve been a poet for as long as I can remember. My mom still has my poems when I was 4 years old, in a shoebox under the bed in our house in Yonkers, New York. I was raised in the Black church. And to me there wasn’t necessarily that much distance at least rhetorically from the sermons of my youth and the best spoken word poetry I heard as a teenager. Eventually those kinds of social spaces came to infuse the writings, especially the poetry, with the kind of energy that I wanted to maintain once I went to graduate school at Princeton. People were quite unfamiliar with what I was after, and some even told me that it was a distraction and that no one would ever take me seriously as a literary scholar. I kept doing the spoken word thing. I came to embrace the poems as acts of refusal, in a way of refusing the rather constricting vision of what it meant to be a literary scholar or critic or professor or educator. I learned how to be a teacher from poets, you know?
The fatherhood thing is pretty new. I’m only about six months into the gig and It’s pretty incredible. The new joys my son brings into my life every day. I’m trying to leave myself open to astonishment and trying to model that for my students and for my son. I’m trying to leave myself open to change and grow. In that sense, I really do feel like the Whiting and the Guggenheim have sort of changed things for me. I have this next year off to just sit with these new book projects.
Q. You’re doing a book about spoken word poetry?
A. Yeah, a cultural history of spoken word. I’m trying to engage in the book in a certain kind of creative nonfiction experiment. I’m really trying to tell a story about these institutions that came and went and about these unique alliances between Black and Puerto Rican poets in particular. I’m interested in the social networks, the friendships, the conflicts and alliances that helped create this voice that in the present moment it’s probably heard loudest on the Internet. So my book is really an attempt to tell that story, but also from a first-person perspective as someone who lived through a lot of it. I performed with the Nuyorican the first time when I was 17 years old and three years later, I was performing at the White House.
Q. So, you teach at Dartmouth but you and your family live in Boston. The city has a reputation for a contested and often ugly racial history. What has it been like for you?
A. That’s a great question, and it’s a complicated one. I came here for work; I had a doctoral fellowship at MIT and then I was elected to something called The Society of Fellows at Harvard, which was a transformative experience in my life. I also met my wife around that time at a Black-owned restaurant called Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, let’s make sure that’s in there. Meeting her and her group of friends I realized there was a Black and brown social scene that wasn’t visible to me from the university campuses through which I had known Boston and Cambridge. There were these very vibrant communities of Black Americans and Haitians and Puerto Ricans and Cape Verdeans and Hondurans.
Malcolm X lived in Roxbury, Frederick Douglass was here in Boston for a time. So I do think there actually is a rather robust Black cultural history here in Boston. I just think it’s subsumed by popular narratives and also it’s just not depicted in film and media, right? We just don’t really see those communities represented on screen, even though the city is quite diverse.
Interview was edited and condensed.