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'Owed': Joshua Bennett on Preserving the Vulnerable Commodity of the Black Imagination

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Joshua Bennett’s latest poetry collection is Owed. That’s O-W-E-D.  The book is a series of odes — lyric poetry in the form of an address to a particular subject — but it is also about what is owed to Black Americans during this time of racial reckoning.

The poems reveal Bennett’s ideas about how we first mend the relationships between ourselves in our families and our communities, but also how we preserve what is the most vulnerable commodity for Black Americans — the Black imagination — a focus on the stories and experiences of Black Americans. 

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Highlights from the interview with Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett on his father, a Vietnam veteran who worked with the United States Postal Service

I'm in many ways a product of that, of the fact that the United States postal service is also a way for many Black Americans to enter the middle class, and my father's veteran status was part of the way that my mom purchased our home in Yonkers, New York. And so, yeah, part of what I'm thinking about, of course, in this moment as this sort of assault on the basic infrastructure that helps make life possible for us here in this country — on a personal note, there is a great deal of pride I took actually as small boy and the fact that  anyone who got a love letter or got a scholarship in the mail. I felt like that was tied to my father and the work he did as a mail handler. You know, I always thought of what he did as sort of real work, and I know that's maybe a problematic formulation, but over and against even my life now as a writer and academic, I think often about what it means that the man who raised me would carry a sort of hundred-pound bag of mail every day for about ten hours a day for forty years, at night, back and forth between a conveyor belt and a truck. And he didn't always enjoy that job, but that taught me something about what it meant to invest in one's family. I'm going to make sacrifices for the future. So, I think quite a bit about the postal service and what it's meant to my family.

On anticipating the birth of his son

I had no idea I was going to have a child on the way [when I wrote the book]. I had no idea I'd have a son on the way. So it resonates so much differently now, of course, right, that he's due next month, my son, and seeing this book come into the world right before him. It makes me think about all the memories I have with my father, good and bad, and the fact that my father was the first person I called when I found out I was going to become a father.  That is the advice he gave me much, like the way he talks about integrating his high school, it was not heroic at all. It was largely about failure and persistence, you know, he just said, you are not always going to get it right, but you have to try again.

I think that captures so much of the spirit of his example, the example he set out for me, which was not always about excellence or aspiration. Those are quite important to me in other ways, especially in terms of my writing and scholarship. I aspire toward excellence every day, but I think what makes it possible for me to actually be a scholar and teacher is that my father always taught me that I could come home, and that it sort of didn't matter if I was famous or people thought I was smarter or anything like that. When I think about becoming a father, those are the kinds of lessons I hope to lay out for my boy, you know, that it's ultimately about whether or not you're kind to people. That's the measure of a human life. Are you good? Are you decent? Did you love somebody? Did you commit to the joy of the world?

On performing at the White House in 2009

My mother was my plus-one that night, and my most distinct memory, I mean, you would think it you would be seeing the president, right?  But actually one of my most distinct memories is I'm shopping for the suit I wore to the White House with my mother at our local mall, and the look on her face when I was on stage and her coming to rehearse my poem with me before I went up. 

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.

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