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Joshua Bennett on reading ‘to pursue astonishment’

Joshua Bennett's new book is “The Study of Human Life."Handout

In his new book, “The Study of Human Life,” Joshua Bennett blends poetry and speculative fiction to reimagine the world as it is and envision a world that could be. Bennett is the author of two poetry collections, “Owed” and “The Sobbing School,” as well as the book of criticism “Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man.” The poet earned his PhD from Princeton University and is currently a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College. He lives in Boston.

BOOKS: What have you been reading?

BENNETT: I’ve been on a Guggenheim Fellowship and one of the beautiful things about that was getting to read away from the classroom. I just returned to Major Jackson’s collection “Hoops,” which I really enjoyed. I worked on an installation that celebrates Black nature poetry, which just opened at the New York Botanical Garden. I’ve been collaborating with horticulturists and poets on a symposium for that, and one of them, Abra Lee, recommended Effie Lee Newsome’s collection “Gladiola Garden,” a book of nature poetry for children that was published decades ago. I’ve been reading that too.

BOOKS: Who are the poets you reread the most?


BENNETT: As often as I can I start the semester with June Jordan’s essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America.” June was a Mount Rushmore American essayist and also an incredible poet. Christopher Gilbert, especially his collection “Turning Into Dwelling,” Jack Gilbert, B.H. Fairchild, and William Matthews are also poets I treasure. So is Aracelis Girmay, who also writes great books for children, which I have read to my boy. “Changing, Changing,” so good.

BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?

BENNETT: I was reading and writing poetry at 4. I went to The Modern School in Harlem, and we memorized poetry there. The school was founded by the great educator Mildred Johnson, whose father was a coauthor of the Black National Anthem. We sang that every morning. In school or in church, poetry was all around me. My sister had a copy of Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” taped to her bedroom door.


BOOKS: What were your poetry reading habits like as a teenager?

BENNETT: Voracious, in part, because my high school was two hours away in Rye. I was always reading on the bus or train. I was also reading Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West. That was helping me shape what I wanted to do in college. I had never heard of African American studies. I was also traveling around New York City to perform in poetry slams.

BOOKS: What do you read when you aren’t reading poetry?

BENNETT: All sorts of things. My first book of literary criticism is almost all about novels such as Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones” and Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” which is the first novel I ever saw in my life. My sister had the black hardcover with pink-tinted pages that made it look like the Bible.

BOOKS: How would you describe your taste in fiction?

BENNETT: I love an expansive world and language that feels epic in scope. I love authors like Percival Everett, who are not afraid to be funny. With fiction or nonfiction, I want to be teleported to another world, maybe with rules I don’t even understand.


BOOKS: Have you read anything that surprised you by how much you liked it?

BENNETT: David Berman’s “Actual Air.” Reading that and Denis Johnson and Thylias Moss had a big influence on me. I didn’t know you could use that kind of language, that kind of subject matter, in a poem. I was raised in poetry slams, and my early work was deeply personal, deeply political, and with accessible language. The idea was that everyone should be able to easily understand it. Those poets taught me to trust my reader more.

BOOKS: How so?

BENNETT: Oprah Winfrey once asked Toni Morrison, “What do you say to people who struggle to understand your work?” Morrison said, “That’s what I call reading.” There is something beyond understanding. This is one of the lessons I got from the Black church, to pursue astonishment, to pursue moments when you feel speechless or can’t quite grasp what you feel. That doesn’t have to be a terrifying moment. That can be a moment of intense beauty and power. It’s OK to not know what’s going on sometimes.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at